Book review: The Redeemed, by Tim Pears

With The Redeemed Tim Pears brings his remarkable West Country trilogy to a triumphant conclusion. All the novels have been daring, this last perhaps most of all, for it strikes off in new unexpected directions, taking the young hero Leo Sercombe away from rural England and the horses with which he has such affinity, and thrusting him first into the Great War as a boy seaman in the Royal Navy, engaged, and almost losing his life, in the Battle of Jutland; then, post-war, having trained as a diver, working on salvaging a scuttled German ship in Scapa Flow. This is bold, because Pears risks alienating readers who have been delighted by his varied treatment of country life in The Horseman and The Wanderers. He gets away with it because it is so well done that even those readers most eager to get back to the story of Leo and his childhood friend Lottie Prideaux, daughter of his father’s employer, are likely to be held spellbound.

Tim Pears

Essentially, the outline of the trilogy is an old, old story. Boy meets girl and then is sent on his wanderings. They are separated. Will they come together again in a happy ending? Leo’s story is in the picaresque tradition. Lottie’s is less adventurous. Her struggle is to be permitted and enabled to be what she knows she is capable of being. So she resists all attempts, especially her stepmother’s, to make her into a society lady, studies veterinary science, and, after her father’s death, manages the diminished estate, combining this with work as an country vet. Like Leo, she endures some horrifying experiences. Like Leo she keeps going. Both are credible, as well as engaging, characters.

Pears is a master storyteller, and like many other masters of the picaresque – Dumas for instance – is sufficiently confident of his ability to have his readers follow him wherever he goes to be able for the most part to dispense with plot. That said, there is one contrivance leading to a misunderstanding which is reminiscent of the sort of plot device employed by Hardy – for instance, the letter in Tess which is slid under the door only to disappear under a rug. In The Redeemed a comparable misapprehension will prolong the separation of Leo from Lottie.

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Stevenson in his essay ‘A Gossip on Romance’ (vile title) distinguished between Romance which offers the poetry of circumstance and the Dramatic Novel which is concerned with character and conduct. Much of the time this distinction is fair and useful, though Stevenson himself in Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae combined both Romantic and Dramatic modes. Pears does likewise in his trilogy. Like the great writers of Romance he ventures to the bounds of credibility, the long episode in The Wanderers, for instance, which tells of the months the boy Leo spent as the slave of a band of gypsies. But at the same time all three novels are concerned with the development of Leo’s and Lottie’s characters, and the struggles they have to engage in if they are to be true to themselves. The course of the trilogy traces their moral and intellectual development.

In all three novels there are wonderful, memorable scenes. If the author’s evocation of rural England in the first decades of the 20th century is so vivid and at times beautiful that the reader is tempted to indulge in nostalgic daydreams, there is no sentimentality in the writing, no pretence that country life wasn’t also hard, harsh, and often cruel and brutal. Pears looks reality in the face, and has both Leo and Lottie search for the meaning of experience. There is humour, too, for realism demands it.

It often seems that the literary novel is doomed, and few would deny that it has lost its central place in today’s culture. Nevertheless, in this trilogy Pears shows that the novel still has an unequalled amplitude and depth, that it can still be “the true book of life,” more capable than other art forms of offering delight, enriching one’s experience, and inviting one both to think and feel. There are delights here which are immediate, others which present themselves in memory. Finishing The Redeemed, many will immediately want to return to The Horseman and so be able to read the three novels in one go, fully to savour Pears’ extraordinary achievement. - Allan Massie

The Redeemed, by Tim Pears, Bloomsbury, 400pp, £16.99