Brief, beautiful, and brutal, Tim Pears' Landed will gently extract your heart from your chest, and you will allow it to happen because books this insightful and well-crafted just don't come along very often.
Landed is about a reserved, thoughtful guy named Owen, whose formative years were spent at his grandparents' farm in the Anglo-Welsh countryside. Alongside his reticent grandfather, Owen learned how to identify animals and birds, how to manage his grandparents' sheep, and how to work with his hands.
He emerges self-sufficient and composed from this quiet childhood, eventually finding happiness with a woman who appreciates his solid nature. But the measure of peace he's found vanishes when his eldest daughter is killed in a car accident.
In a remarkably effective device, Pears opens Landed with some legalese about the accident. The court papers that comprise the first chapter reveal that Owen was driving the car when his daughter was killed; that his car stopped abruptly and was hit from behind; that Owen claimed he'd swerved to avoid a dog, a claim no witnesses can corroborate.
The hard-and-fast, photo-illustrated facts of this case indicate that Owen is to blame for the death of his daughter. He never quite recovers from the accident, and soon his wife leaves him, unable to bear both his complicity in her daughter's death and his increasing distance. Owen develops a drinking problem, as well as debilitating phantom limb pain in his missing hand—a condition that's also revealed through "official" medical documents. With the clinical language of these court verdicts and doctors' diagnoses, Pears shows us the great distance between the surface of a life and its interior: Owen himself remains immensely sympathetic, even as we learn these facts of Owen's decline. And even as he concludes that the only thing left for him to do is to kidnap his two remaining children and bring them to the farm country that meant so much to him when he was a boy.
This journey is at the heart of the book: It takes Owen and his children through the English countryside, where they pick berries and hunt game and sleep in caves; they even stumble upon a cloistered utopian community, where they're given shelter and care when Owen's youngest child becomes sick.
The character of Owen is inextricably linked to the countryside, as well to the incursion of the suburbs into the hills, and the decline of a way of life that Owen wasn't strictly born into, but nonetheless hoped to make his own. Pears' nature writing is evocative and fresh, full of indelible images: dogs in winter "scampering across the white crust then sinking, and breasting through soft snow like aquatic mammals, whiskery snouts showing," or spider webs "made visible, their entire nocturnal intricacy, by the morning dew, a forensic feat of nature." The result is human and wistful, an account of a life lived in the wrong place, maybe at the wrong time. And sure, the ending will rip your heart out a little bit, but by the time it's happened you won't even mind, because you'll have come to understand that the story couldn't have ended any other way.