Tim Pears’ The Horseman is the first in a trilogy of novels set in England’s West Country in the early 20th century. The final book, The Redeemed, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2020 and as some of you will know, working through the shortlists for that particular prize is one of my personal reading projects. As I don’t like to start a trilogy or series at the end, I decided to begin with The Horseman in the hope that I would like it enough to want to continue.
Starting in January 1911 and finishing in June 1912, the novel follows the daily life of young Leo Sercombe, the son of a carter who works on the estate of Lord Prideaux on the Devon-Somerset border. Leo has little interest in attending school, preferring to help his family with their work on the farm – and here he has gained a different kind of education: a knowledge of horses and an affinity with nature. Then one day, Leo meets Charlotte, Lord Prideaux’s daughter, and a friendship begins to form based on their shared love of horses.
There’s no doubt that The Horseman is a beautifully written novel, but I’m sorry to have to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much. I’m not necessarily the sort of reader who needs a very strong plot with lots of action on every page, but I do need at least a little bit of plot and this book didn’t seem to have any at all – just one description after another of various farming tasks. As the months go by and the seasons change we are given detailed accounts of grooming horses, gathering hay, ploughing fields, collecting eggs and anything else you can think of that takes place on a large country estate. I suppose it’s not quite true to say that absolutely nothing happens in the novel, because Leo is learning and growing all the time, but because there’s almost no conflict or drama in his life – until right at the very end of the book – I found it difficult to connect with him in any way.
Other reviews of this book are overwhelmingly positive and I can see why, as it’s a lovely, gentle portrayal of a rural community in a time gone forever; unfortunately, it just wasn’t the right book for me. This now leaves me with a dilemma as I had been expecting to go on to read the rest of the trilogy for my Walter Scott Prize project. Am I likely to enjoy the other two books any more than this one? I suspect not, so I might have to leave the 2020 shortlist incomplete.
Book 23/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.