The summer of 1984 was a hot, dry summer in England. I know, because I was there. My family lived in England for a year, between June of 1984 and August of 1985, and I remember the headlines: Heat Wave Burns Britain! Drought Scorches Crops!
In the Place of Fallen Leaves, by Tim Pears, chronicles that summer in a small village in Devon. Alison, a 13-year-old girl, is the narrator. Her teachers have gone on strike, and the endless, hallucinatory, impossibly hot summer becomes even more endless because school won’t start until the strike ends. In deceptively beautiful, gentle prose, Alison describes her family: her grandmother, blind and opinionated; her hardworking mother; her father, whose memory has been erased by alcoholism so he behaves like an eight-year-old; her brother Ian, steward of the farm and heartless charmer of women; her independent sister Pamela; and her wordless brother Tom, more comfortable with the pigs than with other human beings.
The entire village is laid bare to the curiosity of a young girl. She knows her neighbors’ secrets, including those of the book-loving rector and the Portuguese woman at the other end of the village. She attends church mostly for the coolness of the marble floors and pillars, and tells the history of the village relationship with God. She swims in the quarry and the drops dry on her skin before she even finishes getting out of the water. Weather and death and love and sex: Alison has knowledge that has come down to her through generations, and also the particular knowledge that comes at the age of thirteen and never comes in quite the same way again.
This was Tim Pears’ debut novel. It’s wonderful. The prose is exquisite, and the portraits of human beings caught in a hot, syrupy summer are perfect. It reminded me of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (though the plot is quite different) for its evocative use of heat and childhood to show off the best and worst of adult behavior: our frustration, our irritation, our need for forgiveness, our deep connections. I’ve been recommending this to everyone ever since I finished it, and now I’m recommending it to you.