Every now and again a novel comes along which quite simply takes your breath away. It won’t necessarily have the same effect on everyone (as the discussion in last week’s book group gave witness to) but for you it will be one of the books that you know you will be returning to for the rest of your reading life. For me, Jim Crace’s most recent novel, Harvest, proved to be such a novel.
Truth to tell, it was a book I’d been avoiding because I hadn’t got on all that well with earlier novels by the same author. Oh, I could see that they were real works of literature, not only intelligently conceived but also beautifully written, but they didn’t speak to me. So, when Harvest turned up on my Wednesday Morning list I’m ashamed to say that I put off starting it until the last possible moment. More fool me! Well, at least that gives me a good reason to return to the work as soon as possible because I need to give it a far more detailed read than I was able to last week. Even so, it still knocked me sideways.
One of the first questions that was raised in discussion was just when and where the novel is set. This seems to me to rather miss the point. Although it could be argued that we are somewhere in the Midlands of England at some point in the late Middle Ages an equally valid argument could be made for being in the Scottish Highlands in post reformation days. (Well, perhaps not equally valid, but the story that is being unfolded would have been just as relevant.) For this is not about a specific time or place but rather an uncovering of a recurring pattern in the lives of working people who are valued as long as they have something to offer those in power but cut lose the moment a more profitable venture comes along. In this instance that venture takes the form of sheep, which are to be brought onto the land at the expense of the barley and wheat harvests that have for generations sustained the people of the village at the centre of Crace’s novel. The people are about to be dispossessed of their lands, their livelihoods and their community without so much as a by your leave. While it is easy to relate this to fifteenth century Cotswold or East Anglian villages the same thing happened in the Highlands during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and it is a pattern that has been repeated world wide, if not always with sheep farmers as the incomers then invariably to the detriment of those already occupying the land. Perhaps the most important word in the text is the last one, when Walter Thirsk, the novel’s narrator, as he leaves his village home for good reflects
This is my heavy labour now. I have to leave behind these common fields. I have to take this first step out of bounds. I have to carry on alone until I reach wherever is awaiting me, until I gain wherever is awaiting us.
In the book’s final words Thirsk reaches out and connects with each and every reader and reminds us that even now all it takes is for those in power to decide to reallocate the acreage we occupy to other usage and we will be forced to move on. Discuss this novel with anyone with house or land on the proposed route for the new high speed rail track and they will know exactly what Crace is writing about.
While Walter Thirsk is our principle contact with the villagers who find themselves about to be dispossessed, in terms of village life he is more of an observer than a participant being an incomer of less than twenty years, and this is important in respect of the way we as readers relate to the events of the single week that is the time span of the action. Although we feel his anguish as he watches the new master of the manor make plans to change the very nature of the land itself, he doesn’t have the same level of commitment to the location as those whose families have been born and bred there over succeeding generations. This was a sticking point for some of the members of the group because they felt they were being kept at one remove from the very real suffering that was being experienced by the people of the village. For me, however, it created the necessary distance that allowed me to appreciate the universal nature of what Crace is exploring. If the narrator had been more deeply entrenched in village life the story would have been particular instead of a singular instance of a wider ill. Thirsk as narrator works perfectly as far as I am concerned.
However, the greatest beauty of this book for me is the language. When a student used to come to me and proudly tell me that they had written, shall we say, five hundred words towards an assignment I would always say, ‘Yes, but are they good words and in the right order?’ Not only are Crace’s words both well chosen and definitely in the right order, they have, in addition, a certain rhythm, almost a music, which underlies and reinforces their meaning. Here he is, for example, talking about the way in which the people of the land understand not just the practical importance but also the symbolic significance of ploughing.
He’s obviously guessed what this day of work will be. He understands its greater meaning too: that ploughing is our sacrament, our solemn oath, the way we grace and consecrate our land. Not to mark our futures in the soil before the winter comes is to say there’s no next year. I cannot admit to that. The coming spring must be defended. So, we’ll put the nose before the ear. And then we’ll plough.
I could read writing of that calibre all day long and quite simply never tire of it.
Not only has this book been a delight in itself but it has also persuaded me that I need to go back and re-read Crace’s earlier novels because I can’t believe that I read them before with sufficient attention to the lyrical writing that swept me along in respect of Harvest. I also hope that the author will reverse his decision of last year: namely that this would be his final novel. If there were to be another I certainly wouldn’t be waiting over twelve months from publication to read it.