Thursday 19 October 2017

Review: Disputed Land by Tim Pears

Heinemann, €14.99, Hardback

Sometimes the Irish reader can't help feeling that the England of contemporary fiction is a million miles away from our own bizarre island. This is true of Tim Pears's seventh novel.



The book is set in the present, but seen from the vantage point of some 50 years into the future.

The narrator, Theo, is/was a 13-year-old who remembers visiting his grandparents for Christmas on the English-Welsh border and discovering that Granny is dying and that Grandad wants Theo's parents and uncles and aunts to put stickers on the pieces of furniture they are going to get in his will.

These people are well-off in a way most of the Irish have no experience of: there's been money in the family for aeons, and Granny is gentry, but the sort that reads the Guardian and regards the Labour Party as hopelessly right-wing.

Theo has arrived at the edge of puberty, just the right age for being inflamed by the sight of his aunt bosoming out of her blouse.

He also finds himself, almost by accident, kissing his cousin in a cupboard while they are playing hide-and-seek.

And he engages in peculiarly grown-up conversations with his other cousins, Xan and Baz, a precocious pair of comedians.

The grownups in the family are similarly comic. The one an Irish person might best recognise is Uncle Jonny, a ruthless failure of a businessman constantly trying to fix deals on his mobile phone. And one of the aunts has gone gay and is intent on getting pregnant by sperm donor.

In fact it's on the conflict between nature, business and environmental morality that Pears builds his drama. Grandad's fortune, which derives from growing apples, is threatened by Genetically Modified imports, and Granny, partly as a result of her brain tumour, is given to uttering warnings of an apocalyptic collapse of the natural order.

The technical problem with the book is that the reader keeps forgetting, and anyway can't quite believe, that it is a memoir recollected in the future.

Near the end, for example, there is a diatribe about what's wrong with society -- to the effect that "Technology has allowed the men of action to lay waste the world" -- and even when you realise that it's the older Theo who is speaking you can't help feeling you're being lectured by an author with a disappointed bee in his bonnet.

That being said, Disputed Land is an odd and oddly entertaining novel. The evocation of place, and in particular the Shropshire house in which it is set, is brilliantly effective -- even if the island it evokes is on another planet. The English are a most peculiar people, in part because they think they are normal.

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