A teenage boy scrapes a living roaming the southern counties of pre–World War I England as a girl he loves drifts toward maturity in surroundings of insulated privilege.
Time passes with slow deliberation in this restless second volume of the West Country trilogy as Pears (The Horseman, 2017, etc.) maintains his commitment to the seasonal and laboring round of a bygone era. The novel picks up where Volume 1 closed, with Leo Sercombe cast out from his childhood home, beaten and bereft. Near starvation, he's rescued by a gypsy family whose adoption develops into a kind of enslavement as Leo works off his debt, initially with chores, later—when reunited with a stunning white colt and using his remarkable equestrian skills—by enhancing the betting in an important race. Meanwhile, Lottie, the 14-year-old daughter of Lord Prideaux, progresses toward adulthood, attending the Derby (an annual British horse race) and developing a passion for biology. Leo’s peregrinations serve as a lens through which Pears presents a succession of impoverished vistas—ruined mines, mean farms—and a minutely observed landscape in which the boy scrounges work, learns some skills, makes a few friends, and is robbed of his magical horse. Weather, wildlife, and rural practices are delivered in detail, from how to butcher a deer to the best response when an owl lands on your wrist, talons first. Avoiding conventional plot developments, pulled along instead by the gravity of survival and impending history, the novel closes with a glimpse of 1915, of war and the irreversible social disruption seeping into this panorama split between Leo’s poverty and Lottie’s luxury.
Episodic, instructive, occasionally resonant, this is slow, lambent fiction that pays unsentimental tribute to ways of being now disappeared from the land.