LONG in abeyance, the English rural novel flourishes again in Tim Pears's story of a 13-year-old Devon farmgirl's confrontation with sex, death and the weather. In the Place of Fallen Leaves is technically sophisticated for a first novel, and the author keeps a robust, countryman's distance from material that could be twee.
Alison's teachers are on strike and the ground is burning up in a long hot summer of hormonal turbulence and agricultural mishap. As real and sacred cows are slaughtered, she divides her time between the hedgerows, the church where she is a server, and the welcoming darkness of the quarry pool. She is escaping not only the muggy weather but the closeness of her family. Sister Pam, all bangles and lipstick and going off to Exeter in strange cars, presents a kind of sexual example for Alison or, maybe, a warning. Mother is full of a bluff workaday sadness: 'Why, dear God, do it only get harder?' This is mainly on account of Alison's amnesiac Dad, who wanders about like a child, full of amazement and timidity. 'The cider rusted up 'is receiver, poor love. His memories is scattered on the wind,' says Grandmother, who believes that events don't evaporate but exist as magnetic fields in the air. The farm, meanwhile, is worked by brothers Tom and Ian, one tongue- tied, practical, smelly, the other a Don Juan and frustrated chess genius who turns stubble-burning into a poetic and exact exercise.
Alison finds some succour in the homilies of the local Rector, but not enough. Her growing sense of the world's violability is partly assuaged by Johnathan Teignmouth, the shy young aristocrat with whom she strikes up a relationship at the quarry pool. A gentle eroticism is generated by the differences between them: 'Albert Camus. He played in goal for the Algerian national team. One of the g-g-greats, Alison. Really]'
Like much in this novel, sex remains understated. Yet, as much as we are waiting for death and rain at the end, we are also waiting for Alison and Johnathan to issue in a kind of rebirth. For if heat is one of this book's fictionalising principles
(everything shimmering, as over tarmac), another is time. It is all part of a cycle, historical as well as natural, with individuals round the village replicating the strengths and frailties of their forebears, and present incidents echoing past.
For the reader, smaller patterns of heat and time disturb the surface of the language itself, little splashes of metaphorical weirdness on top of the cool, quarry-pool stillness. The result is an unusually well-made novel which, through being less English than one would expect, produces a very English kind of magic.
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