Run to the Western Shore by Tim Pears review – a Celtic odyssey | Fiction

Run to the Western Shore by Tim Pears review – a Celtic odyssey | Fiction

Why do we read historical fiction? Is it because we love the brutal simplicity of our past? If so, the opening chapter of Tim Pears’s novel is all you could want – a bravura set piece built around a tense encounter between a Roman legion and a posse of warriors in what is now south Wales. The tribe leader hands over his daughter Olwen to the Roman governor as a kind of hostage bride before thundering off with his warriors. If you were going to film it, you’d call Ridley Scott. But that night Olwen runs away with the governor’s translator – an Ephesian slave called Quintus – and Pears ditches the legions and horses to focus entirely on these two and their attempt to make it to the coast. It’s a handbrake turn from epic into something intense and intimate. If you were going to film it, you’d ask Richard Linklater.

When the couple encounter a Roman patrol, its leader tells them that every last trace of Olwen, her family and her world “will be obliterated … The governor will write his account with no mention of them.” So there’s another raison d’être for historical fiction: we can use it to write back into the story those whom the victors have written out. Quintus, a slave, and Olwen, a young woman from a people who are about to be obliterated, could not be more marginal, but in Pears’s hands each comes to represent the culture that created them.

Sometimes the focus on the two is so tight that we lose sight of the pursuit. This is no bad thing, partly because – as you’ll know if you’ve read his wonderful West Country trilogy – Pears is a master at making you see again landscapes that have long vanished. More importantly, it means the danger comes less from their pursuers and more from the question of whether two people from such different cultures can work together. Quintus has a gift for picking up languages, but feels no special allegiance to anywhere; at one point he saves them by his ability to negotiate a compromise. For Olwen, compromise is disgrace. She’s courageous, volatile, quick-tempered; a wonder and a liability.

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Pears has an unusual gift for creating characters you want to spend time with, even though they are not entirely likable (see Leo in The Horseman, for one). Through Olwen, he gives us a convincing portrait of Celtic culture without sentimentalising it. Our encounters with it are sometimes beautiful and charming, sometimes terrifying. The pair witness a human sacrifice – because Caesar was right, druids did go in for it. Quintus’s dark skin means he’s taken for a possible messiah figure.

Then there are Olwen’s stories. Quintus tells stories about his family background; Olwen tells stories that trace her family back into an impossible, legendary past, tales that connect to the world of Taliesin and the Mabinogion (Pears credits Charlotte Guest’s 19th-century translation in the notes). This threw me slightly. I think of Taliesin as a courtly medieval invention, like Arthur, rebranded by 18th-century antiquarians. But there’s always been the claim that, like Arthur, there’s a grit of truth in that pearl; and maybe that’s the point here. Power passes away, but what survives of us is stories – not because they are remembered, but because they are reinvented.

Run to the Western Shore by Tim Pears is published by Swift (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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