The Horseman
Tim Pears
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The Horseman
Tim Pears
Bloomsbury USA
320 pages
February 2017
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Rich in pastoral description, Tim Pears’ coming-of-age story follows Leo Sercombe growing up in 1911 in rural Somerset with his older brother, Fred; his father, Albert; his cousin, Herbert; his mother, Ruth; and his sister, Kizzie. Leo is one of the purest characters in all of English historical fiction: strong as an oak, faithful to his beloved horses, and watchful of Miss Charlotte Prideaux, the daughter of the Master of the “big house.” Weaving Leo's story together in such a way that our opinion of him rarely changes as the novel moves on, Pears focuses on the struggles of farm life and the essentialness of the Sercombes to the countryside of rural England as the Great War is about to change their lives.

Although industrialization has swept through much the land, you wouldn’t notice it in this part of bucolic Somerset, where farming families have lived for generations and, for the moment at least, are sure of their place in the natural order of things. This position is most characterized by Albert Sercombe, who spends his days plowing the fields and demanding that his nephew, Herbert, help with the furrow. In the tack room, Albert wields his heavy plow spanner and whip cord of leather. Leo, hoping to lead a “Godly life,” carefully watches his father, eager that one day he, too, will be an “expert Carter.”

Leo is dedicated to observing the natural world, leading him to foster a likely friendship with 16-year-old Sid, sole under-keeper for the head gamekeeper, Aaron Budgell. Sid arrives at the Sercombe farm to help Leo take care of the horses. Leo himself seems intent to escape from his responsibilities with daily trips to the keeper’s cottage in Pigeon Wood, just in sight of “the big house.” Although Sid is fascinated by all animals, Leo is only fascinated with the horses--in particular the two grand geldings, Noble and Red, whom Leo grooms daily with love and care. Leo observes that each species of animal has its own peculiarities of vision: “this world we surveyed that is not as it is but as it would be seen in many different guises.”

Leo is drawn to haughty, mercurial Charlotte, who rides her blue roan pony as if she’s on display for Leo. She tells him he has “eyes of the color of blackberries” and admires how good a rider he is. Charlotte is as loquacious and feisty as Leo is shy and taciturn. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, the couple lie side by side, watching Charlotte’s beloved roan jump and kick, contorting himself in pain and rage. Leo tries not hear Charlotte’s tears above the cacophony of the dying horse’s frenzy.

Hailing from Devon himself, Pears brings great authenticity to his tale of rural farm life and to these strong, hardy people who find themselves constricted by fortune and by fate. The young, naïve working boy sometimes yearns for something more than the bucolic hayfields comprising his everyday existence. The halters and blinkers, the smell of leather and saddle soup, the strings and cart saddles, the smell of the horses’ “incomparable concoction of hay, dust, and flesh, and sweat”--Pears lavishly details them all. Meanwhile, an icon of beauty appears in front of the boy: his mother’s painted crockery, the integral part of her dowry that is always kept in their parlor. The crockery is one of the only treasures that Mary brought with her from Cornwall.

The depth of Pears' skill is how he transports us to this particular time and place, allowing us to feel as though we are actually experiencing the novel as we read. Amid the blousy summer days and diaphanous clouds, where the “quarried land fades into the bluebell wood,” Leo's voice comes alive, an impressionable boy who seems to know things that others do not. Leo is a carter’s son and always will be, even after he becomes “a horseman” or whatever else he will seek to make of himself. Leo’s voice can sometimes be challenging due to the idioms of the period, yet his language of the common-folk really brings this story to life.

A young and innocent boy is placed upon a new path, and the diaphanous nature of fate is directly linked to a brutal and unexpected family betrayal. Bringing Leo to life both through broad strokes and in the tiniest detail, Pears makes his point in the context of an involving, propulsive page-turner which leaves the reader breathless, wanting to read more of this planned trilogy.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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