Disputed Land, Tim Pears’ seventh novel, returns to the subject that has dominated his writing – families, their environments, and the dynamics that underpin them. Like his first novel, In The Place Of Fallen Leaves, he uses a young narrator, in this case a boy, Theo Cannon, who is taking his first steps towards adulthood. However, where that novel was lyrical and expansive, Disputed Land is a much more prosaic and contained affair.
After a brief opening in which Theo, as an older man, seeks to justify to his son his writing of the account that follows, we are taken back to 2007 and the Christmas he spent at his grandparents’ Shropshire farm with his parents, both academics, and his father’s brother and sister and their children.
The reason for the visit is simple – Theo’s grandparents wish to make arrangements for an orderly passing of their property on death to their children. Their plan is unusual – each of the three siblings are to label the items of furniture they want to inherit, in order of preference. This eccentric arrangement sets the scene for an intriguingly low-key tale of familial jealousy, class politics and the blurring of the lines between the urban and the rural. The relationship between Theo’s meek, liberal father and his alpha-male uncle Jonny is particularly fraught and provides much of the novel’s tension.
Like the young Owen Ithell in Pears’ last novel, Landed, Theo has a strong bond with his grandparents. His grandfather, a retired farmer, who is writing a seemingly unfinishable history of the border country between England and Wales (the ‘disputed land’ of the book’s title), shares with Theo many of these tales. His grandmother, daughter of a rich landowner, now terminally ill, is increasingly prone to strident outbursts on the imminent environmental disaster facing mankind. Theo’s growing relationship with his cousin Holly is also explored in a refreshingly unsentimental manner – their discovery of each other during a family game of Sardines is one of the novel’s key moments.
This is a deceptively simple novel with a central conceit that is wafer-thin. However, Pears uses it to explore the currents and undercurrents of a diverse extended family, and exposes them with painful accuracy. While elements of the book are rather self-conscious – the conspicuous dropping of brand names is at times jarring and some of the dialog (especially the children’s) is rather forced – the writing, evocative yet sparse, is strong enough to maintain attention and the use of place names, both Welsh and English, adds to the novel’s earthbound poetry.
With Disputed Land, Pears has written a modern parable where the best intentions are thwarted by inertia and apathy. In the end, nothing is neat and tidy, and no inheritance is exactly what we expect.