Goodreads Synopsis of Harvest:
On the morning after harvest, the inhabitants of a remote English village awaken looking forward to a hard-earned day of rest and feasting at their landowner’s table. But the sky is marred by two conspicuous columns of smoke, replacing pleasurable anticipation with alarm and suspicion.
One smoke column is the result of an overnight fire that has damaged the master’s outbuildings. The second column rises from the wooded edge of the village, sent up by newcomers to announce their presence. In the minds of the wary villagers a mere coincidence of events appears to be unlikely, with violent confrontation looming as the unavoidable outcome. Meanwhile, another newcomer has recently been spotted taking careful notes and making drawings of the land. It is his presence more than any other that will threaten the village’s entire way of life.
In effortless and tender prose, Jim Crace details the unravelling of a pastoral idyll in the wake of economic progress. His tale is timeless and unsettling, framed by a beautifully evoked world that will linger in your memory long after you finish reading.
Here’s an Extract from ‘To Penshurst’ by Ben Jonson that brings to mind the pastural idyll, before the enclosure act was enforced:
Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,
That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer,
When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.
The lower land, that to the river bends,
Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;
The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.
Each bank doth yield thee conies; and the tops
Fertile of wood, Ashore and Sidney’s copse,
To crown thy open table, doth provide
The purpled pheasant, with the speckled side:
The painted partridge lies in ev’ry field,
And for thy mess is willing to be killed
And if the high-swollen Medway fail thy dish
Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
Fat aged carps that run into thy net,
And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat,
As loth the second draught or cast to stay,
Officiously at first themselves betray.
Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land,
Before the fisher, or into his hand.
Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,
Fresh as the air, and new as are the hours.
The early cherry, with the later plum,
Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come:
The blushing apricot, and woolly peach
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan;
There’s none, that dwell about them, wish them down;
But all come in, the farmer and the clown;
And no one empty-handed, to salute
Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit.
Some bring a capon, some a rural cake,
Some nuts, some apples; some that think they make
The better cheeses bring them, or else send
By their ripe daughters, whom they would commend
This way to husbands, and whose baskets bear
An emblem of themselves in plum or pear.
But what can this (more than express their love)
Add to thy free provisions, far above
The need of such? […]
(Text reproduced from ‘To Penshurst’ by Ben Jonson, 1616)
This is a book which perhaps I wouldn’t have chosen to read, so I have to thank the book group that I belong to, for widening my appreciation and taste in books! I have to admit that I found the opening chapters a slow and heavy slog, almost like I myself was a member of this village community where the pace of life is dictated by the unrelenting demands of the harvest. I am glad that I persevered as without doubt this is a wonderfully evocative novel. Crace’s often poetic writing carries you along, every word, sentence and metaphor seems to be perfectly sculpted. His descriptive prose is without doubt his forte. I struggled to rate this novel, but in the end I decided to give it 4 stars, as I found the characters, while good, played second fiddle to the prose.
Crace evokes a long-lost village during the time period of the enclosure act somewhere between 1750 and 1860. He creates a sense of belonging, of families with long allegiances, and a deep-rooted suspicion of newcomers, and change. When the master’s dovecotes are burnt down, it is evident who the perpetrators are, yet it is a family of outsiders who are blamed. The main character in the novel, the narrator, Walter Thirsk, realises that the newcomers are innocent, but the community doesn’t want to blame their own, they’re are happy to accept these unwelcome outsiders as a scapegoat. From this duplicity, this harsh and unfair behaviour, a disastrous chain of events follow with terrible consequences for all of the community. This is a moral tale, a tale of the economic power of landowners over their subordinates, a tale in which change is coming, unwelcome change, that will strike at the core of the villagers’ life.
The narrator’s character left a lasting impression on me. He seems well-intentioned, but never has the courage of his convictions to stand up and speak for what is right. I can’t quite picture him, he seems a shadowy figure, living amongst the community but not accepted into the heart of it. This lack of detail has been judged by some reviewers to be a negative aspect of the novel. It is my impression that it was probably Crace’s intention to depict Thirsk in this way, as a man who lives amongst the villagers, but is never quite one of them. Quite a brave move, as this will distance the reader, but for me I think it works, because this is one of the central theme’s of the novel, a stranger is never really accepted into this community unless he has been born and bred into it. This lack of courage attributed to Thirsk is also true of Thirsk’s Master, Master Kent, a kind but weak man. Mr. Earle, a newcomer, invited into the community by Master Kent, shows more pluck and courage than the other characters. He is given several names by the local inhabitants of the village, and the newcomers blamed for the fire, are also given a name that is not their own, suggesting that all newcomers are viewed with suspicion. Superstitions abound, and suspicion and superstition go hand in hand, in this land of rituals, and harvests.
Humour and sexual innuendo are used to enliven the prose. Insight into life in rural England under the rule of unscrupulous landowners is characterised in the arrival of Master Kent’s cousin, a punitive, cold-hearted man. This is a novel of loss, human weakness, destruction of a way of life, and engrained ties to the land.
There is a heady mix of lightness in the rituals of the harvest, the crowning of the Gleaning Queen, followed by the darkness of all that happens thereafter.
Magic: My Conclusion
I would say that I found the second half of the novel more gripping, and magical, than the first half. Reviewers have used the terms “hallucinatory” and “hypnotic” to describe Harvest, I believe that Harvest is worthy of these two terms, depicting a bygone age, when time came and went by slowly with each harvest, and customs and rituals were held in great esteem. If this is indeed going to be Crace’s last book, he should be proud that he has ended his long-standing writing career on such a deserved note, with high acclaim, and a place on the Man Booker shortlist. I would recommend this to readers who enjoy the detail of thoughtful literary and historical fiction. Perhaps it will be a book I will return to, it seems worthy of a second reading.
My favourite quotes from Harvest:
“Any hawk looking down on the orchard’s cloistered square, hoping for the titbit of a beetle or a mouse, would see a patterned canopy of trees, line on line, the orchard’s melancholy solitude, the jewellery of leaves. It would see the backs of horses, the russet, apple-dotted grass, the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet, and two grey heads, swirling in a lover’s dance, like blown seed husks caught up in an impish and exacting wind and with no telling when or where they’ll come to ground again.”
“On nights like this, when there is anxiety about, there is a glut of lovemaking. Then the moon is our dance master. He has us move in unison. He has us trill and carol in each other’s ears until the stars themselves have swollen and ripened to our cries. As ever here, we find our consolations sowing seed.”
Bye for now,
Marje @ Kyrosmagica xx