Unusually for a work of fiction, Tim Pears’ new novel opens with a spread of black-and-white photographs, part of an ‘investigator’s report’ into a fatal collision said to have taken place on a Birmingham dual carriageway in the summer of 1996.
Unusually for a work of fiction, Tim Pears’ new novel opens with a spread of black-and-white photographs, part of an ‘investigator’s report’ into a fatal collision said to have taken place on a Birmingham dual carriageway in the summer of 1996. The victim is a six year-old girl named, Sara Ithell. Her father, 35 year-old, Owen, loses both his right hand and his livelihood as a jobbing gardener to the local bourgeoisie. Of the brown mongrel dog, whose irruption onto a pelican crossing is supposed to have caused the accident, there is no sign.
Tim Pears’ books have two main fascinations: parents and children, and the environments they inhabit. Such tensions as they exhibit nearly always shift into gear when this rootedness in locale starts to break down. The first half of Landed, consequently, works in counterpoint, sketching out the crack-up of Owen’s marriage and his profound inner trauma, while harking back to the adolescent holidays spent with his grandparents on their Welsh border sheep-farm. Like the absence of the dog, grandpa and grandpa’s role as parent-substitutes — mother is a feckless hippy type who eventually decamps to King’s Lynn — may only be inferred.
Pears’ forte, as in his debut In The Place of Fallen Leaves (1993) is the natural-history set-piece. The accounts of teenaged Owen creeping off in search of a badger’s sett (he comes back months later to find it demolished by the ‘terrier men’) or poaching deer with grandpa (no gun involved — the old boy simply mugs them with a knife) have a kind of elemental savour, never sentimentalised and frequently skirting tragedy. There is a terrific moment in the poaching sequence in which Owen, fleeing from the gamekeepers, stumbles into a bog, sinks to shoulder-level, and is hauled out by the hair.
By contrast, the spoof documentation which Pears uses to flesh out Owen’s decline is less successful. The occupational therapist’s report on his rehabilitation is as unwieldy as the hook which eventually takes the place of a prosthesis. Owen’s contribution to a website called ‘fatherforum’ and his wife Mel’s confessional have the same faintly implausible air, in which a determinedly down-market tone —‘were’ for ‘was’ and so forth — suddenly lurches genteely up register with talk of ‘plump, raucous starlings’ and people with ‘brilliant powers of observation’.
None of this, though, detracts from the narrative tug of the second half, in which Owen, waking up one morning in his tower-block squat, stuffs his rucksack with camping gear, springs his two remaining children from school and heads off west to redemption. The language turns even sparser, the imagery ever more redolent of Owen’s inner hurt: in the post office, where he liberates his savings,
the queue is long and layered back onto itself like an intestine. Owen is moved intermittently forward by some kind of peristaltic shunt
There follows a long, picaresque excursion by train and foot through the West Midlands conurbation and the countryside beyond, marked by rain, storm, familial togetherness and an all too foreseeable finale.
Neatly written, unobtrusive to a fault, the novel’s closing sections have an almost hallucinatory quality. At one point Owen ends up wheeling a melancholic fat man met along the way in a wheelbarrow, while speared by the memory of his parents dancing to the old Hawkwind hit ‘Silver Machine’ in their early Seventies kitchen. But whatever its minor imperfections, Landed has one conclusive merit. Unlike four-fifths of the stuff that turns up on the Waterstone’s shelf, it was clearly written to express some deeply-held beliefs about human experience rather than to appease the latest fiat from Sales and Marketing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 20, 2010Tags: Death, Family, Fiction