"In the Place of Fallen Leaves" is set in a small Devon village during the summer and autumn of 1984. Although it is a work of fiction, it bears little resemblance to the traditional novel, lacking any strongly defined plotline. It is told in the first person and bears a greater resemblance to an autobiographical memoir of childhood, although the events described in it are narrated not by the author himself but by an invented character, thirteen-year-old Alison Freemantle.
Tim Pears takes some liberties with the background to his story, describing 1984 as the hottest and driest in year in living memory. In fact, although the spring and summer of that year were indeed unusually warm and dry, if not quite as hot as the summer of 1976, the autumn, especially September and October when most of the book takes place, was unusually wet. Nevertheless, the countryside described here is a place of fierce heat, baked and parched dry by the sun, a place of lassitude, lethargy and idleness. That idleness is sometimes enforced- when the normal time comes for Alison and the other children to return to school they are unable to do so because of a teachers' strike.
Unlike some writers about English rural life, Pears does not concentrate on descriptions of nature and the beauties of the countryside. He is more interested in human life and concentrates more on descriptions of people and how they act, as seen through Alison's eyes. Like most of the villagers, Alison's family are farmers, and many of her reminiscences are of them. The most tragic member of the family is her father, who has sunk into a state of near imbecility, his mind and memory rotted by alcoholism. As a result responsibility for running the farm has devolved upon Alison's stoical if harassed mother and her two older brothers, Ian and Tom. Alison also has an older sister, Pamela, but she is a semi-detached member of the family, spending all day working in Exeter and interested in little except her boyfriends.
Ian and Tom are very different from one another. Ian is something of an intellectual who would doubtless be happier doing something other than farming, an occupation into which he has been forced by family tradition. He is also an insomniac who sits up all night working on chess problems. (It is only rarely that he actually plays a game of chess, due to a lack of opponents of sufficient calibre in the area). Tom is quiet and reserved, more at home with animals than with people. The story of his love-affair with Susanna, the daughter of wealthy incomers to the village, is one of the funniest (and, at times, one of the saddest) episodes in the book. The two remaining members of the family are Alison's elderly paternal grandparents who entertain her with memories of the valley in earlier days.
A number of other characters play important roles in the book. Johnathan, the son of a local aristocratic landowner, is a strange, bookish boy and the nearest thing Alison has to a boyfriend. Douglas Westcott, an eccentric farmer and slaughterer, is obsessed by maps. And then there is the village Rector, a divorcee living alone in a huge, rambling house, desperately trying to bring Christianity to his sceptical, semi-pagan flock.
In many ways the book reminds me of Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie", another memoir of life in a West Country valley. Lee's book was of course, at least ostensibly, a work of autobiography rather than fiction, and was set in the 1920s rather than the 1980s, but Pears's book would suggest that despite the coming of modern inventions such as cars and televisions, rural England had not changed all that much in the intervening six decades. Certainly, Pears's Devon valley seems just as remote and cut off from the outside world as Lee's Gloucestershire one, and its inhabitants just as independent and suspicious of outsiders.
I would not rank this book quite as highly as Lee's, which possesses a greater variety of incident and moves along more fluently; "In the Place of Fallen Leaves" can occasionally seem static and repetitive. It is, nevertheless, an impressive first novel, particularly in the author's power to create well-defined characters and in describing the incidents which befall them, frequently amusing, and yet also sometimes tragic.