BOOK REVIEW / Time is taking a siesta: In the Place of Fallen Leaves - Tim Pears: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THE SUMMER is so hot that time is taking a siesta and even close relatives have an air of unreality. It is like looking at a world with sunstroke. The Place of Fallen Leaves is a Devon village of farming families and commuters, school buses and milkmen, tractors and rectors that epitomise rural England. But, in the heatwave of 1984, it is also drifting off its geographical moorings. The cattle are skin and bone as in some African drought; there is a Portuguese poetess living in a shack; and Alison, the 13-year-old narrator, dozes out afternoons under hedges with a lazy naturalness more akin to Latin America.

There is, in fact, a trace of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Tim Pears' first novel. While quietly detailing everyday lives, Pears invests transitory moments with an aura of enigma or the significance of universalities - time and memory, birth, death, family, growing up and growing old.

Above an abattoir, a dust cloud gathers shaped like a cow and sons of small-time farmers are whimsically transformed into folkloric heroes as down-to-earth events brush against the fantastical. So too, characters' eccentricities hover between sharply observed realism and fiction - the latter either comically exaggerated or other-worldly. Alison's grandfather, now frail, once pushed the Cornish quarry foreman 'back across the Tamar, with his jaw broken in so many places it was said that for the rest of his life he lived on a diet of soup supped through a straw'. Meanwhile, Alison's father, who is led around placidly, quite empty of feelings, constitutes both a tender depiction of amnesia and an almost allegorical embodiment of the novel's philosophies of time and emotional numbness.

The village is plagued with a passing sickness that specifically saps feelings. In the intense heat, Alison feels invisible and the Rector is permanently troubled that he can 'find no fixed point inside himself'. Pears' themes do cause difficulties. His characters' sensations of immateriality can leave one longing for more solidity. So too, concentration on a society in limbo - only slightly infiltrated by modernity and immobilised by the weather, the teachers' strike, and the flooding of the quarry - makes one impatient for forward movement. This impatience is initially exacerbated by the book's nonlinear structuring of time, a loose weave of current and historical incidents which stylistically supports the opinion of Alison's grandmother 'that history is a spiral, and that the future is present in the past'.

None the less, as this slow, circling structure is sustained, Pears' easygoing pace actually soothes away the urge for momentum. The scattered focus which at first seemed detrimental also grows into a strength. The novel's persistent digressions into diverse incidents in multiple lives adds up to a panorama of the ages (childhood, adolescence, middle and old age) and spans the century with its use of memories.

Pears' only partial immersion within Alison's perspective creates hitches when she exhibits unlikely omniscience as narrator of her older brothers' love lives, her mother's inner thoughts, and the quintessentially private intimacy between her grandparents. The writing is occasionally repetitive - a case of authorial amnesia? - and descriptions of sunsets and rustic scenes can nosedive into cliches. But Pears dexterously steers just clear of sentimentality in this unusually strong debut.

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