In the foreground of a reverent portrait of pre–World War I England, a talented boy’s life is set in motion.
Opening his ninth novel in 1911 on a Somerset estate, Pears (In the Light of Morning, 2015, etc.) unspools a panorama of rural existence from the perspective of the laboring classes. The Sercombe family works some of the land belonging to Lord Prideaux, aka “the master,” following an age-old, effortful seasonal round which allots predictable roles to men, women, and animals. The blacksmith keeps the forge, the sawyer saws the trees, and Albert Sercombe, a carter, runs a stable of horses to plough and harvest. The perspective of 12-year-old son Leo, “another Sercombe with equine blood in his bones,” shapes the narrative, as he skips school to spend time in the stables: attending the birth of a foal, getting his backside bitten when climbing into the saddle, and bringing his first colt to halter. Dramatic events are few in this lovingly detailed almanac of a tale, which devotes pages to the harnessing of horses, the reaping of crops, and the practicing of trades and crafts now lost to modern agriculture, along with their vocabulary (“zart,” “strouters,” “felloe”). Meanwhile, Leo has struck up an acquaintance with Miss Charlotte, the master’s willful, horse-loving daughter, and also impressed her father with his instinctive riding ability. An inescapable sense of scene-setting underpins this first volume in a proposed trilogy, alongside a feel of familiarity as the shadow of war stretches toward this eternal landscape with its shooting parties, intuitive working folk, and noble beasts. “Things’ll carry on one way or another. Naught for us to worry over,” Albert assures his wife, yet the novel closes on a turning-point event and a great act of sundering.
This leisurely curtain raiser, a gloriously devoted poem to England’s past, springs to life in its final chapters.