I am going to start this post with an utterly nonsensical and illogical statement.
Jim Crace was robbed of the Booker Prize last year.
Illogical because I have not read The Luminaries (although it is in the 746) nor any other of the Booker nominated novels. Nonsensical because I am a massive Jim Crace fan and thought he was robbed before I even read Harvest.
So you can imagine how balanced a review this is going to be!
Harvest tells the story of an unnamed village in an unnamed time which comes under catastrophic threat, firstly from a trio of outsiders – two men and a dangerously magnetic woman, then from a sinister gentleman and his enforcers, set on changing the landscape of the village permanently. Starting with two ominous fires, the narrator Walter Thirsk watches his hamlet unravel with a startling speed where arson, witchcraft and murder wreck devastating consequences. Told in Jim Crace’s poetic and hypnotic prose, Harvest serves as an allegory for the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed and a way of life is forever lost.
The novel shows how much can be lost from the slightest of causes. In the early chapters, the villagers have one care only, the strength of their harvest, ‘our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools. The clamour deafens us. But that is how we have to live our lives.’ Yet, the coming of the three vagrants brings anxiety and anger bubbling to the surface and begins the lies which bring about the undoing of the entire village. The vagrants have a right to set up camp, an unpopular ruling ‘which gives the right of settlement and cedes a portion of our share to any vagrants who might succeed in outing up four vulgar walls and sending up smoke before we catch them doing it’ and a ruling that the villagers chose to ignore despite many of them, including Walter, having come to join the village in the same manner. The village may be at the mercy of greater forces, but their treatment of the three interlopers has grave consequences for all involved. They reap what they sow.
Walter in particular vacillates between doing the right thing and looking out for himself. He is a slippery, somewhat unreliable character, who does not originally come from the village and who is constantly examining a situation to see how it will best serve his needs. And yet, the other characters are no better. The novel explores issues of ‘us’ and ‘them’ but who that ‘us’ actually is never becomes fully apparent. Loyalty is spoken of often but seldom seen.
As with most of Jim Crace’s work, the setting for the novel is vivid, but not specific. When asked for names of fields and roads by Mr Quill, who has been employed to map the village, Walter states, ‘We do not even have a title for the village. It is just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land, I add.’ The village and the land are depicted with simplicity and a striking beauty in language that is clearly not contemporary but neither is it antiquated. This is human nature being played out in one place and time as it is played out in other places and in other times and the story takes on the mantle of myth, of archetype as we watch a community implode under the weight of guilt, recrimination and change. The larger themes of life, death and change are tackled as the fate of the village unfolds and a way of life comes to an end and Walter ‘takes this first step out of bounds’ until ‘I reach wherever is awaiting me, until I gain wherever is awaiting us’. The story becomes the global rooted in the local, a myth and an archetype, with a resonance to match.
Crace has said that this is his last novel and that he is retiring from writing. I certainly hope that isn’t the case. He’s still got a Booker Prize to win!
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