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Landed, By Tim Pears

Cracks show in family portrait

Solid, rooted heritage, and the manner in which we engage with those around us, is something of a stock-in-trade for Tim Pears. His debut novel, In the Place of Fallen Leaves, wove a mazy, domestic saga that was pungent with atmospheric detail and offered a microcosm of the conflicts precipitated by Thatcherism. The panoramic In a Land of Plenty acted out bold themes of personal and public morality through the dynastic fortunes of an industrialist's family. A Revolution of the Sun used political satire to explore anarchic protest and community fault lines.

As its title suggests, Landed is permeated with an attachment to landscape that in some respects harks back to the relationship to place in his first novel. Owen Ithell grew up tending sheep, hunting and absorbing the cruel truths of rural subsistence under the emotionally parsimonious eye of his grandfather, a tenant of farms in the Welsh borders. He anxiously snares a lass in a local pub, but his decade with Mel is truncated by a car crash in which Owen loses a hand and their oldest child, six-year-old Sara, is killed.

Separation follows, with court orders, scarce work and restricted access. The threat of Mel emigrating with their two younger children squeezes Owen into desperate measures. He abducts Josh and Holly from school, striking out west to show them the place where he grew up.

The hazard in this novel is that Owen's early life holds a richer interest than his present quest. Owen's enthralling youthful anchorage in the border hills is conjured in potent, exhilarating prose that holds echoes of Thomas Hardy, or Alan Garner's Thursbitch. His present-day disenfranchisement feels less compelling.

Beyond odd flashes of pride, Owen evidences little care for his unconvincingly stoical kids, who too often seem mere cameos in his own introspection. As they wander into a progressively more surreal landscape, the reader's faith in Owen's parental capacity begins to falter and, with it, any conviction that these children are more than wallpaper for his own breakdown.

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