Harvest ~ Jim Crace

book-review-harvest-by-jim-crace-L-eZOebDEvery 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.

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26 thoughts on “Harvest ~ Jim Crace

  1. I became aware of this book when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year, but for some reason I didn’t pick it up. The writing sounds wonderful; I’ll have to try and read this book soon – thank you for reminding me about it!

    1. I wsih I was still coming to it for the first time, Becky. Although I suspect it is also going to be one of those books that pays for re-reading.

  2. “Are they good words and in the right order?” I love that. An important question for any student, any writer.

    Your post resonated with me for so many reasons. My father was third generation cattleman at the Chicago Stockyards. When they closed in 1971, he suddenly found himself without a job and a fairly obsolete career. A decade or so before, the Illinois Tollroad Commission out the tollway right down the middle of his family’s farm. These are personal stories, but as you point out,what is to become of the people who must sacrifice at the power of those in charge? There really is no haven, not “even” in America, the land of the free. Becoming, in my opinion, less free by the moment.

    I can see where the narrator would have to be somewhat removed to tell the story effectively. It is a more universal story than one might originally think, applicable to more than sheep and land but to anything we might hold dear.

    1. I’m sure that Crace must have had situations such as the one that you describe in mind when he was writing, Bellezza. This novel may be set in some sort of Middle England but there have to be resonances all over the world and from all times. Money and power override everything else and if people are damaged in the process, so what?

  3. I have one of Crace’s books on my shelves that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. I’ve heard good things about him. You make this one sound really good. Now if you go back and reread books of his I hope your experience of them changes for the better. It’s amazing what a change in perspective one book can make.

    1. I really should do that, Stefanie. I feel that ‘Harvest’ has given me a better way in to his style than I had before and it would now be worth going back for a re-read.

  4. I also loved his writing and language – the lyrical quality, almost trance-inducing, I found, after a while. But…I thought the book really fell away at the end. The last 70 pages seemed to just drift and serve no purpose. I felt it would have been a much better book had it been those seventy pages’ shorter. However, thank you – you’ve reminded me that I meant to try some of his earlier stuff at some point…

    1. Now I loved that final section, FF. I thought it spoke of the narrator’s refusal to be beaten and his determination to make a statement that the new owner would have to at least acknowledge. But if we all got the same thing out of a book there wouldn’t be so many book groups around, would there?

  5. Alex, I also loved this book. It was the only one I read on the Booker list last year, and I do wish it HAD won. Sometimes it just seems that an older writer should be honored for his body of work, and Crace has that as well as this fascinating novel.

    1. Well, there have been times, Kat, when the charge has been laid at the judges door that they have done precisely that. I’m thinking particularly of ‘Amsterdam’. The difference being, of course, that ‘Amsterdam’ is one of McEwan’s weaker novels whereas there is nothing weak about ‘Harvest’ at all.

  6. I know I read Quarantine years ago but can remember almost nothing about it so it obviously didn’t leave a big impression! I’ve looked at this one in the library once or twice but didn’t bring it home, which I’m now regretting after reading your thoughts on it.

  7. I’ve had basicaly the opposite experience in that I loved his earlier novels and could not get into this one at all. You do have me thinking about giving it another go. I loved Gift of Stones which has a very similar theme about work becoming obsolete.

    1. This sounds a fascinating book. I like the point you make about how the narrator’s distance being the right decision for Crace in bringing out the universal in his novel. Also: not a murder suspect in sight!

      1. We-e-e-e-ll, Ian, there is a bit of a mystery going on here and someone does get killed but it definitely isn’t a murder mystery as you and I would define the genre:-)

  8. This novel should have won the Booker last year – it’s staggeringly good – universal themes – and he said it would be his last novel before he himself moves on to different kinds of writing. Like you, I’ve previously struggled with some of his novels (Continent or Quarantine – can’t remember which), but have loved others including one of his earlier ones – Arcadia.

    1. Arcadia is another one I haven’t tried, Annabel and I can see I am going to have to give some attention to his earlier work. I heard him interviewed about a month ago and he was indicating that he hadn’t found it as easy to turn his back on the novel form as he had thought so maybe we might just get one more.

  9. I was so hoping you would love this. It is so beautifully crafted as to be breathtaking. Even though it’s almost a year since I read it, I still recall the sensations it evoked – that to me is one of the hallmarks of a truly great writer. How he didn’t win the Booker is a complete mystery. I think he was robbed. Or maybe, and I so hope this is not the case, the judges went for something that would be more ‘popular’

    1. Well, they can’t be trying to do that this year. Have you tried to read ‘The Wake’ written, as it is, in Old English? I have the sort of background that should make that possible but I was so busy trying to move just from word to word that I kept losing the gist. Goodness only knows how readers with no linguistic background at all will manage.

  10. This isn’t a comment on the book – a new author to me, and one to explore – but to let you know that I’ve nominated you as a Very Inspiring Blogger: tbr313.blogspot.com/2014/07/inspiring-blogs-and-bloggers-or-vib.html
    Thank you for inspiring me. I hope you are still feeling better, and the Bears enjoy their cake.

    1. I’m much better, thank you Lisa and The Bears are much gratified that you are concerned about their enjoyment of their cake. And thank you also for your nomination. I don’t normally follow through with awards but that doesn’t mean that I’m not very pleased that people enjoy spending time at Thinking in Fragments.

  11. I have a copy of this – part of the Book People package of Booker shortlisted novels, and I’ve been meaning to get to it…. Well you know how that goes! I’ve heard a lot of good things said about it and am looking forward to finding a moment to pick it up. I’m glad to see you are feeling a bit better – take good care of yourself!

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