Middle England's family plot

Patrick Gale hears skeletons rattle as closet doors creak open; In a Land of Plenty by Tim Pears, Doubleday, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Tim Pears made his striking debut with In the Place of Fallen Leaves, an evocation of a pastoral girlhood almost Proustian in its fine detail. In a Land of Plenty displays a similar balance of historical and psychological clarity against nostalgia. The purpose now is larger, however - a state-of-the-nation novel, no less.

He begins in 1952, when Philistine industrialist Charles Freeman woos, beds and weds Mary, an unworldly poet. Charles grows ever fatter and richer, Mary ever more distraite and alienated. They have four children. Simon is his father in duplicate, or at least seems that way as he follows him into the swelling family business. James rebels and becomes a reclusive photographer. Simon dabbles in used cars and hobnobs with their town's criminal fraternity. Alice betrays her early academic promise, dwindling into self-satisfied marriage to a local property magnate. By the novel's close, most have survived the Eighties, but suicide, murder, madness and market forces have polished off the rest.

Pears is wilfully schematic, his purpose broadly signposted. The novel is set in an imaginary heart-of-England city in an archetypal "big house on the hill" which comes to represent the characters' besieged ideals and hopes for a brighter future. The family Freeman - the name carries a whiff of allegory - is extended by marriage, love and kinship so as to encompass most aspects of late-20th-century Britain.

Alternative culture is vividly represented by cousin Zoe, the bookish hippy who ends up galvanising her grandmother's cinema as an artistic oasis, a thriving business and a focus for protest politics. Alice marries a brother's Pakistani classmate, who proceeds to exact a discreet economic revenge on the family that once snubbed him. She moves into the household of a lesbian friend from university, who tries to bully Simon out of his capacious closet. The cook's daughter is raised as Alice's sister, thus linking the family by marriage to the gardener's West Indian brother- in-law - and so on.

We encounter beatnik poetry, flower power, industrial action, the women's movement, Thatcherism, Greenham-style protest, foodyism, a rave, drugs, voluntary single motherhood, alternative medicine, two recessions, a boom, a bankruptcy - even a character in a persistent vegetative state. This is a family to which everything happens. And why not? Cultural history is as good a motor as any for powering a family saga.

There is a faintly embarrassed pleasure in recognition - be it of one's childhood toys and preoccupations or of the past decade's posturing excess - but recent history is not an enthralling read. We know all its punch lines in advance. Schematic narratives are rarely exciting, since they discourage identification with the characters and hinder those characters' ability to develop with much verisimilitude.

Novelists' strengths are often best illustrated when they battle against such self-imposed restraints as a convoluted time scheme or an insensitive narrator. And Tim Pears's humanity is irrepressible. For him, 40 years of British history is little more than an unwieldy plot device. What plainly fascinates him, as with In The Place of Fallen Leaves, is the unpredictable dynamics of a family and the domesticated tyrannies that hold it together while threatening to break its members' spirits. Terrible things happen, rifts are opened, blood is shed, but the family heals its wounds (or dangerously chooses to ignore them) and, hydra-like, grows new limbs.

Pears's political allegory is most successful in this area. It shows a family, like a nation, suffering blow after blow, surviving, because that is all families and nations can do, and, with the passage of healing time, coming to refashion those blows as intimate folklore.

Charles Freeman is a wonderful creation, as memorable a monster as Nancy Mitford's version of Lord Redesdale. Huge in every sense, he cheerfully tramples on wife and children with a glass of claret in one hand and a chequebook in the other. His wife is a delight as well. A ravishingly beautiful manic depressive, she will smuggle the children out of school one day to enjoy an illicit seaside jaunt or to stand in the rain admiring rainbows, then retreat for days on end writing fevered poetry behind a locked door.

It is a pity that Pears does not lavish equal attention on each of the children. Evidently he was half-way into the Sixties when he realised economies would have to be imposed if the book was not to become a leviathan. We see nothing, therefore, of the thoughts of Robert, the dark destroyer of the piece, and Pears seems similarly fearful of entering the minds of Simon, the bluff, camp eccentric - who is played chiefly for laughs - or of Natalie the lodger, a stereotypical dyke.

The emotional and narrative weight comes to lie with James, not least because we know that something horrendous is going to befall him. His is the subtlest portrait because it makes no attempt to charm. It's an acute delineation of the dissatisfaction and insecurity to which so many middle children are heir, and a moving biography of an oddball not-quite- artist.