A Novel of Beauty and Fire
Set against the enclosure acts, when common lands were enclosed for the benefit of the landowner, Harvest tells the story of a small community in the process of destruction. Life in the village has always been predicated upon the inhabitants working together, sowing, harvesting, grazing their beasts, banging the heads of their children against the boundary stones so they’ll know where they belong. It’s a way of life anyone can join by building themselves a dwelling and lighting a fire there, as our narrator did a dozen years before the story begins. But the new Lord of the Manor has modern ideas. It’s going to be all about sheep now, and profit.
Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, although a member of the community, is something of an outsider (what the Irish community in the next novel on my list, The Spinning Heart, calls a ‘blow-in.’). This is amplified when his hand is badly burned in the novel’s opening scene – an arson attack on the manor house – preventing him from participating personally in the events that follow. Walter Thirsk (the reader never gets close enough to think of him more familiarly) knows who committed the arson, but somehow never challenges the convenient assumption that a trio of recent arrivals are to blame.
Jim Crace’s writing is rather beautiful. The village itself, with its precise topography and its sense of purpose, driven by the rhythms of the seasons, is a masterclass in the realisation of place. The impending threat to this way of life is all the more tangible for being understated. There is a sense of the inevitable in the loss of community in favour of the creation of individual wealth. Like the best historical fiction, Harvest has s a modern day resonance.
But I didn’t lose myself in it. One particular, highly significant, scene is related in great detail, despite the fact that the narrator wasn’t present. Later, the narrative relies on the fact that Walter Thirsk wasn’t there– but as Walter Thirsk is the reader’s only entry into the plot, the effect is distancing. Walter Thirsk keeps the reader at arm’s length throughout, and there is no payback for this. Unreliable characters can be contradictory, they can alienate the reader, they can withhold information – and all of this can be incredibly compelling. Coetzee does it in Disgrace, Faulks in Engleby, Tartt in The Secret History. But each of these novels has something that enfolds you even as it repels. There’s a consistent thread you can hold as the reader, like Ariadne’s silk in the labyrinth, as characters twist and turn in the telling of their tale. I didn’t find that thread in Harvest. Walter Thirsk contradicts himself too often. He offers an insight or interpretation, then acts inexplicably with no signposts for the reader. It’s disorientating and, at times, irritating. It’s as though the poetry of the language indicates a private party to which the reader can only be invited by suspending their desire to know what’s actually going on. We meet the minotaur at the end of Harvest, but are never really invited into the journey.
Perhaps I’m too much a part of the modern world of individual wealth and entitlement whose approach is so destructive to the village in Harvest. I want the time I spend reading to be rewarded by a journey beyond my own boundaries. I love it when I stop noticing how wonderful the writing is and start living the story. I love it when I close a novel feeling miserable that my time with the characters (admirable, unreliable, evil or otherwise) is done. I’m glad I read Harvest, and I hope to goodness Jim Crace doesn’t retire. But I never once stopped admiring the writing.