It is the year 72 CE, and Olwen, the headstrong daughter of a local chieftain, has been promised to the Roman governor of Britannia as part of a peace treaty. Together with Quintus, an enslaved Roman, she flees the army camp and sets off towards the coast.
Olwen is fierce and warrior-like, and has a strong affinity with the land and its creatures, while the multilingual Quintus is intelligent but lacks the killer instinct. Despite their differences Olwen and Quintus soon form a strong bond and together they battle the countryside, its hazards, and the pursuing Roman soldiers.
But will their relationship survive, and can Olwen ever return to her people? Or must they aim for the western shore, and hope that they can escape to freedom across the sea?
Tim Pears is known for his lyrical descriptions of the countryside and this is clearly what he does best. In this novel he has lots of rich description of plants, animals and local lore, mostly seen through the eyes of Olwen. He also builds up a picture of early Roman Britain: the scattered settlements, the foraging for whatever food comes to hand, the mistrust of strangers, and the fear engendered by the invaders.
There are also druids, shamans and secret rituals. And Olwen connects with the past through the stories of her ancestors. This is very much a place where the natural and the supernatural are intertwined.
I have to admit that I didn’t always find the main characters or their relationship entirely convincing. It wasn’t clear why Olwen chose Quintus to escape with her, and I felt that they fell in love much too quickly (especially as you get the sense of Olwen leading the way, and of Quintus not having much choice in what happens). I also thought that Quintus could have been developed more fully as a character. Given that he is portrayed as intelligent and thoughtful, I would have liked to have seen him making plans rather than blindly following.
However, anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the atmosphere and countryside of ancient Britain will enjoy this short novel.
Run to the Western Shore, Tim Pears, Swift, 2023, 9781800752979