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Review: The Wanderers, by Tim Pears
Bloomsbury, 2018. 366 pp. $28

In this beguiling, gorgeous, yet frustrating novel, we first meet Leo Sercombe in 1912. The young teenager is on the run through the Devon countryside, bearing the wounds of a severe beating, and near faint with hunger.

The boy stumbled in the night over dark earth. The land was silver. His steps were heavy. At first light in the waters of a stream he cleaned the charred red mud off his boots, and limped on in a kind of crouch that seemed best to allay the pain that racked many parts of his body. He saw where the sun rose and headed in the opposite direction, hunched over like someone with secrets from the light.

Gypsies take him in, but he receives little kindness, and not only because he’s an outsider, what they call a gentile. They sense his weakness, his ache for friendship, and, with few exceptions, treat him cruelly because they can, even after he shows his usefulness. Leo has a way with horses, a valuable skill, and he’s curious, quick to learn, eager to please. Theirs is a hard existence, however, with little room for sentiment, and Leo’s reminded at every turn that he owes them his life and had better not try to run away.

North Devon, near Croyde, 2018

Meanwhile, Charlotte (Lottie) Prideaux has just lost her mother, and she too is rootless, without friends, though in a very different, coddled context. She’s a lord’s daughter, and her father lets her do more or less what she pleases, with one crucial exception. The narrative hints that because Leo and Lottie became too friendly, the boy and most of his family were banished from the estate, which also presumably explains the beating he took. (Since The Wanderers is the second book of a planned trilogy, these events may be more explicit in the first volume, The Horseman.) In protest, for months, Lottie refuses to say anything to her father except, “Yes, Papa,” or, “No, Papa,” and tells him he did wrong to punish the Sercombes.

With great subtlety, Pears shows that Lottie and Leo care deeply about one another, though neither spends much time thinking about it, and both outwardly pretend no connection exists. This understatement makes you want all the more for the two to find one another again. But that’s not how the real world or this novel works, and Lottie and Leo have learning to do.

They’re both empathic, lonely, see beyond surfaces, and love the natural world, about which they have an abiding curiosity. But where Lottie dissects animals to study them and borrows anatomy textbooks from the local veterinarian, Leo helps butcher animals for food and assists a ewe through a breech birth because that’s his job, for which he receives neither thanks nor payment. Pears never underlines the comparison; he doesn’t have to. You only need to watch Leo make his way, suffering physically and emotionally, whereas there’s always someone looking out for the daughter of the manor. Nevertheless, you see Leo gain knowledge that Lottie may never have. I love this juxtaposition, simple and elegant like the prose, which creates a coming-of-age story unlike any other I’ve read.

Yet The Wanderers, though superbly written with brilliant characterizations, lacks a plot to speak of, a climax, or resolution. Having recently torn apart Charles Frazier’s Varina for that failing and others, it’s only fair to ask what Pears does to overcome this deficit, and to what extent he succeeds. He does ask implied, powerful questions, and though nothing happens in the usual way of novels, everything also happens, because it all matters. Partly that’s because Pears offers a view of life on the margins that few writers attempt, but it’s not just the content. Here, the episodic chapters open the characters to the reader, and the small moments establish a constant emotional connection.

Even so, I still feel cheated at the end. I don’t want to wait for the third volume to know what happens, and I’m especially worried that the First World War, to which the novel metaphorically refers as the year 1914 approaches, will deny Leo and Lottie any chance of happiness. Leo in particular is just the type of person to be destroyed in the conflict, and one theme of The Wanderers is how people who embrace violence and dishonesty have a tremendous advantage over everyone else.

So does it matter how many questions Pears leaves hanging? Yes and no. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to have everything wrapped up, then this book may not be for you. If that uncertainty doesn’t faze you, the narrative offers a breathtaking ride.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.