Genre: Literary Fiction
In this engaging novel, Tim Pears tackles many challenging themes: sibling rivalry, time and change in the countryside, facing terminal illness, reflections on the isolation of academic life and undertaking risky financial investment. This is not a portrayal of a rural idyll although much of the most lyrical writing concerns the colours of the Shropshire countryside and this is strengthened by reference to the layers of the archaic past that underlies this disputed borderland territory. In attempting such a multi-layered narrative in a relatively short novel, it is not surprising that for instance, the traumatic shocks in the epic tale are diminished by random, experimental shifts in the tone of the narrative.
‘’Disputed Land’’ is seen through the eyes of thoughtful young Theo who is taken by his parents, both Oxford Academics back to Rodney’s, his father’s family home in the Welsh Marshes for Christmas holiday. This is not the relaxing Christmas to which they might be looking forward. Leonard and Rosemary, Theo’s grandparents have been considering their foreshortened future and tasked not only Rodney, but also his younger materialistic and brutish brother Johnny, and his preoccupied sister Gwen with the division of the family goods. Theo’s arrival is made more challenging again by Baz and Xan, two feckless and brazen twelve year olds, just one year his junior, the offspring of the philistine Johnny and his attractive, zippy South American wife, Lorna.
Much of the most engaging writing concerns Theo’s burgeoning adolescent sexuality. Firstly, from an admiring distance in relation to his Aunt Lorna whose trim figure undertaking early morning jogs through the countryside thrills him with ecstatic admiration of her athletic charms. Secondly, his fellow feeling for his tomboyish cousin Holly, about Theo’s age, leads him into a sympathetic relationship and subsequently, some maturity. This is despite being in the midst of the many conflicts and pressures by which he himself, Holly and her older sister,Sydney-divorced Gwen’s children -are surrounded.
As Christmas progresses the warm relationship between Theo and his grandfather, Leonard is strengthened in activities in and around the ancient farmhouse. Pears evokes the bucolic smells beneath the eaves of the stables, in Theo’s untidy workshop in the Coach house, and wandering around the variegated woods with Leonard’s lolloping dogs and listening to his grandfather’s tales of ancient divided loyalties. Theo’s granddad is an ardent enthusiast for every aspect of local history such as tribal incursions across the border hills and the stanch affiliations of the Civil War. Leonard too encourages Theo’s interest in husbandry, forestry and ornithology.
It is Leonard’s practical enterprise that won the hand of Rosemary, Theo’s grandmother, who was born into the parochial gentry, and an accomplished horsewoman. Unfortunately, her imperious manner and disposition to frankly speak her mind causes pain particularly to Auntie Gwen’s partner, Melony. Her energetic advocacy of green issues including views on population, are so vigorously expressed that it reduces the latter to tears after Gwen proudly announces her partner’s surrogate pregnancy has reached 12 weeks. However, further catastrophic shocks occur on the discovery that in fact Rosemary is not just being just her usual difficult self. Her disproportionate railing is exacerbated by the incursions of a terrible illness.
Some of the difficulty in the flow of Pears’s prose is due to the fact that the novel is written in reflection from a time some fifty years in the future, by the middle-aged Theo. When occasionally reminded of this, the otherwise absorbing story is momentarily disturbed and the flow unpleasantly disrupted. Fortunately, this does not happen often. Pears indulges himself in bouts of strange mysticism, which may appeal to some readers since it adds a dynamic of menace and mystery. Others may just find it somewhat silly.
Fortunately, there are other constituents which make this a very worthwhile read. Tim Pears has imaginatively reconstructed the past, invoking such treasures as the splendid library of Leofric, Bishop of Exeter and the mossy redoubts of the Norman knights, the Marcher Lords. The poetic atmosphere is heightened with descriptions of the altering winter sunlight on the crimson mountainsides and the song of a solitary woodpecker. Pears, too has been a filmmaker and excels at sculpting figures, interiors and props, like the kitchen where the difficult, dominating Grandmother lays her hand upon the Aga, from where she conjures recipes and dominates the set. Then there is control of pacing, producing convincing drama. The dark and poignant quarrels and losses are heightened by their contrast with the hilarious descriptions of a football match that highlights, and for a moment, reconciles the loopy idiosyncrasies of this odd family.
Langland, not far away to the south on the Malvern borderland once wrote in ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘’And with Mammon’s money he hath made him friends’’. Tim Pears in ‘’Disputed Land’’ has written with a similar urgent exhortation, to slay the false gods of growth and greed; to show how issues around grasping and grabbing can tear a family apart.