‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace

‘Harvest’, Jim Crace’s new novel, begins as the barley harvest is nearly over, the cutting has been done and the women and children are gleaning the last pearls before the pigs are allowed onto the fields to rootle around for the scraps.  It’s a routine familiar to every resident of the unnamed village, but their traditions are under threat.

The omens are poor when three strangers, a mysteriously appealing woman, and two men set up camp on the village’s common ground, and, on the same night, part of the manor house is set on fire.  At the same time, another man, nicknamed Mr Quill, is walking around the village scratching things in a book.

These events lead to violence, suspicion and destruction.  Over a period of a week, Walter Thirsk, the narrator, sees his adopted home ruined and his neighbours scattered.  The villagers punish the strangers cruelly, and as things worsen, turn on each other; while the landowner, newly arrived to survey the area, takes advantage of the resulting disorder.

The story is set in a past on the verge of change; old ways will be set aside to make way for sheep on the land.  It’s a time when a man might be fearful of being injured at night in case the pigs come to attack, and when the trouble caused by the arrival of strangers will so disrupt a community that they can think of nothing else, and leave farm and housework undone in order to plot revenge.

This is a book which is likely to provoke a variety of responses; dip into the discussion of it on Radio 4’s Saturday Review and you’ll get a flavour of the disparity of strongly held views.

I enjoyed it for the lyric fluidity of the prose, the evocation of an unnamed place in a time I will never know and the creation of a character I was not sure I entirely believed or trusted. But I was frustrated by the slow pace; what had felt like luxuriant description in the early chapters, got on my nerves towards the middle and end; and I was also puzzled by the narrative voice, by the complexity of expression of Walter, who declared himself to be such a simple man, but who had an extensive and elaborate vocabulary. While I was enjoying the read, I surrendered to the beauty of the voice, but, inevitably, enjoyment turned to resistance when I became impatient with the pace.

This has, however. broken a spell of my not enjoying reading anything I attempted, a time which made me feel out of sorts, and now, having found much to admire in this book, and having read it with an appreciation that took me away from being aware of the passage of time, my proper relationship with books has been restored, for which, a heartfelt thanks.

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