There is nothing remotely original about Tim Pears’s latest novel, Disputed Land. It’s a domestic drama in which an extended family comes together at Christmas in order to bicker, fight and explore love in a variety of ways. Absolutely familiar, then, but also immensely engaging and thoughtful in ways that reach well beyond the proverbial Aga and kitchen table.
The narrator is Theo, thirteen years old in the story, but looking back on this eye- and heart-opening moment of his life from fifty years hence. The venue for the get-together is the big old house of Theo’s grandparents, Leonard and Rosemary, in the Welsh borders, the main players his woolly liberal parents, an uncle, three aunts and associated cousins.
It is Rosemary, the cantankerous, self-assured grandmother who sows the seed of discord, first by denouncing her descendants for helping to destroy the planet (there is a historical-environmental thread that runs, occasionally over-emphatically, through the novel) and then by announcing that she wants her three children to divide up the furniture – their future heirlooms – ahead of time, sticking coloured stickers to the pieces they want. An eminently sensible suggestion, of course, but inevitably divisive. Pushing against this tense atmosphere, the likeable Theo takes his first sure steps into adolescence, bonding with his grandfather and falling in love, of different sorts, with his elegant aunt Lorna and equally likeable cross-eyed cousin Holly.
Pears drops some magnificent comic set-pieces into the narrative. There is a hilarious pan-generational football match between the different families, and a disastrous musical concert put on by the children for their parents, the high point of which is a gloriously inappropriate rap by Theo’s male twin cousins – ‘Xan spent most of the song with one hand on his crotch, the other pointing at his grandmother, or one of his aunts’ – a transgression given extra irony bearing in mind the longing with which Theo has been watching his aunt Lorna limber up for her morning runs.
Alongside and below this comedy, however, Pears makes sure the novel has a strong emotional undercurrent. It doesn’t have the punch-to-the-gut power of his last book, Landed, but he certainly makes sure the reader turns the last page with a sense of melancholy fondness for these characters that have been such immersive company.
Jonathan Gibbs blogs at http://tinycamels.wordpress.com/.