Harvest, by Jim Crace
Picador, 2013. £16.99
Hardback, 320 pages. ISBN: 978 0330445665
Review by Jane Stewart
Jane Stewart is a writer who lives and works in Scotland. She contributed to The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English (ed. Lorna Sage, 1999) and The Chambers Biographical Dictionary of Women (ed. Melanie Parry, 1996) and has a particular interest in historical novels. Jane’s reviews have appeared in Pleiades, the Literateur and the Times Literary Supplement.
Set in a remote, unnamed village in England, some three days away from the nearest market place, during an unspecified year around the time when the early enclosures were starting, this engaging novel resolutely turns its back on the deeds of princes, prelates and kings which often form the basis of historical fiction, and instead, rather like a painting by Brueghel the Elder, it illuminates the lives of ordinary men and women working on the land, by showing their quotidian struggle for survival, their collective sense of place and of belonging, and their fragile dependency on one another and on the whims of nature.It opens as the villagers gather in the harvest, unaware that their landscape, livelihoods and traditions are about to change for ever. We learn about village life through the consciousness of narrator, Walter Thirsk, whose education and dark hair mark him as an incomer and different from his flaxen-haired Anglo Saxon neighbours, many of whom have never ventured beyond the village bounds. Whilst the villagers labour, newly-arrived map-maker, Philip Earle, working with his brushes and quills, is observed by Walter “marking down our land”. “Mr Quill”, as the villagers dub the newcomer, shows them “the scratchings on his chart, the geometrics that he said were fields and woods, the squares that stood for cottages, the ponds, the lanes, the foresting”. Walter notes that these “scratchings” seem portentous, as if they “might scratch us too, in some unwelcome way”.
As the plot develops, the significance of the charts is apparent to Walter before it becomes so to his neighbours. He is required to help Mr Quill in his map-making by taking him to every part of the land within the village bounds, and in this way, not only do we learn of its usage, but also of his deep attachment to it. “The web of lines” to which the small community has been reduced by Mr Quill’s penmanship, represents “the closing and engrossment of our fields with walls and hedges, ditches, gates” and heralds the imposition of enclosures where previously a system of open field, arable farming had been carried out by the same families “since Adam’s time”. At the behest of a new landowner, and in the cause of “Progress and Prosperity”, three thousand sheep are to be brought in and will outnumber the people by fifty to one.
The arrival of more strangers in the village leads to dissent, violence, accusations of witchcraft, and death. Whilst some of these strangers are intent on clearing the village of its inhabitants and replacing them with sheep, other new arrivals, it transpires, have been already displaced from their former village by sheep. With the redrawing of the land, a way of life will vanish.
The pace of Harvest flags slightly towards its close, but Crace’s ability to distil the very essence of an unspoiled landscape will more than compensate for this with many readers. We are drawn into Walter’s world by his sense of place and his love for every aspect of his surroundings, by the evocative “bread-and-biscuit smell of rotting wood” and “the piss-and-honey tang of apple trees”, and by his vivid description of the year tipping into autumn:
I smelt the forest and the earth, the dampness of a fast-retreating year, the acridness of leaf mould and a kitchen odour which I could have taken for yeast but yeast that was soured from neglect.
This is a world where everything relates to the natural setting: the breaths of a gasping man are “ladled from a shallow pool”, and even the charnel field is shown to have its own beauty and is fringed with flowers, known to Walter as “longpurples”.
We are immersed, too, in the rhythm of the year and a communal way of life where nothing is wasted. After harvest, the gleaners move in, then, in succession, cattle, geese and hogs are allowed to forage before it is ploughed again. Rushes are used for lights, ferns for litter, clay for bricks, peat and turves for roofs and fuel, willows for poles, celandines for gargles, and cowslips for palsy. Yet this is no rural idyll; the land is “inflexible and stern” and “the great task each year” is to wrest a living from it and to “defend …against hunger and defeat”. Nothing is certain. Death stalks the land in many forms. Whilst incomers may bring welcome extra hands to share the work, they may also bring plague.
Maybe Crace’s greatest achievement in this book is to confront readers with a re-imagined landscape. Just as the villagers come to envisage their surroundings in a new way through Earle’s coloured charts, so Harvest invites us to conceptualise and map a pre-enclosed, pre-Industrial England without familiar, man-made landmarks. We must imagine away hedges, stone walls and ditches. In their place, we must conjure open fields scarred by ridge and furrow, the oak tree on the horizon which provides a line for the ploughman with his oxen, the narrow, overgrown lanes through which the villagers move, the dark forest with its fears, real or imaginary, and the village bounds where young children are taken to have their heads banged against a marker stone so they do not stray. Above all, because the impoverished village in Harvest is unable to fund a church or a clergyman, this newly-imagined view of rural England is devoid of the church spires and towers which now punctuate it. Crace appears to be suggesting that, perhaps, by re-envisioning our landscape in this way, we can come to a different appreciation of its history and intrinsic value.
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