The Horseman by Tim Pears is an account of the slow, meandering life on an estate farm in rural Devon. It is 1911 when, for modern readers, the sinking of the Titanic is not far away and the Great War looms. Two children, born into very different worlds, grow up not far apart; both have a strong love of horses. This novel is billed as a coming-of-age tale but it is also a description of rural farming methods.
Told in a month-by-month format, the seasons unfold in a remote Devon valley where the passing of time is marked by the weather and the tasks undertaken on the farm. There is a long list of characters and at the beginning I confused who was who, but gradually they settled into their roles. Leopold Sercombe is the youngest son of the master carter working on the tenant farm of a large estate. He longs to escape school every day to run home and help his father with the horses; these are working animals, cart horses and cobs, they are almost characters. We are there as Noble gives birth; as Leo’s father shares one of the secrets of his trade, the use of dried tansy to give his horses a glossy coat; and the day Leo is given a chance to break Noble’s unnamed colt. “The boy watched the colt, his young lean muscular beauty in motion, then turned and walked towards the fence. There was but one spectator there, sitting on the top pole, feet resting on the lower, a youth in a Homburg hat, shirt, breeches, and riding boots of a sort worn by the master and his kind.” Lottie, daughter of the master, the owner of the estate, challenges the way Leo is handling the colt. And so begins their shared love of horses.
This is a 4* book for me. Why not 5*? Because the relationship between the two children takes a long time to start happening and then ends explosively which seems out of kilter with the spirit and pace of the story; because the slow, slow pace of the story and the passages of overly detailed description at times felt like sections for a ‘how to use farm machinery book’. But Leo is an entrancing character; his gentle authority with horses, his silences and thoughtful behaviour, make it essential to read The Wanderers, second in the trilogy.
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