After a blissful summer rattling round his grandparents' old pile on the Wales-Shropshire border, 13-year-old Theo is pleased to be invited back for Christmas. Grandpa has summoned his three children – Rod, Jonny and Gwen – and their families. Both frugal Oxford academics, Theo's parents, Rod and Amy find Jonny's brazen materialism deeply vulgar, while Theo is excited by his uncle's sense of energy.
More of an enigma, Jonny's wife is stirringly beautiful but their kids are ghastly snobs, which Tim Pears's novel picks out with delightful narcissistic detail. Theo also finds himself attracted to Holly, the younger of Auntie Gwen's two girls. Gwen is trying for a baby with her new girlfriend, which news gets shockingly short shrift from Grandma – more on account of global overpopulation than objection to sexual orientation.
Pears has terrific fun with his cast and is highly skilled at drawing out foibles and grudges among the tribe. Solid, rooted heritage and the manner in which we engage with those around us is something of a stock-in-trade for him. This seventh novel marks a return to the more political canvasses of his earlier work, such as In The Place of Fallen Leaves and In a Land of Plenty. Pears called these novels social chronicles; strong (and in places satirical) narratives underpinned by explicit ethical concerns.
Landed, Pears's previous novel, reprised the visceral attachment to landscape and placed the protagonist as a victim, not innocent but buffeted by social forces he was unable to control. Disputed Land shares the same sentimental tenacity about physical place but turns back towards the public realm in Grandma's clarion call for engagement in place of indifference. Judging by the few glimpses of Theo's situation decades in the future, this exhortation would seem to have gone unheeded.
The disputed land could be the declining state of the world itself, the cavilling that derails meaningful action on climate change. It's also the physical landscape of the Welsh marches, fought over for centuries. Grandpa wrenched his patch of land from another farmer to plant his own orchards. Yet Theo realises that capitalist Uncle Jonny will try to squander the family seat to pay off his own business failure. Ultimately, it is the myopia of this profligate existence, recalled with Theo's voice of youthful naivety, that gives this novel heft and weight, and a curiously nostalgic tone.