I loved this book, for so many reasons!!
It is the story of a week in an unnamed village in an unspecified part of England at an unspecified period. And I loved the timelessness of Crace’s prose: his narrator’s language is lyrical and deeply informed by the landscape but not archaic or faux-authentic.
If we were identifying a period for what is quite clearly an historical novel, the brief reference to the plague and the enclosure of the common ground to make way for an invasion of sheep would put us in the early seventeenth century, perhaps a hundred years after Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies was set.
There are clear links between this book and Mantel’s. I wonder whether Harvest would have been as lauded as it – quite rightly – is without Mantel’s winning the Man Booker. Historical fiction seems to have been an overlooked genre in the past, somehow insufficiently literary. No-one reading Harvest could doubt its literariness: almost every page oozes metaphor with an extraordinarily well judged balance between the literariness and the narrative voice. The language never asserted itself to the detriment of the narrator’s character.
The character of the narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an interesting one: he is introduced as one of the fifty-eight villagers working to bring in the eponymous harvest; but he is also articulate beyond his fellow-villagers and somehow distant. Even a passive observer of events rather than an active actor. There are narrative reasons for that distance: when his master – and milk twin – Master Kent married into the local landowner’s family, Thirsk entered the village with him as an outsider, residing at the manor house; only when he married the villager Cecily, did Thirsk join the village. He himself dwells on the correct lexis to describe his position: settled into the village but not a part of the village; sometimes included in the first person plural pronouns we and us; sometimes not.
Thematically, however, Thirsk’s isolation and greater or lesser exclusion from the village is key. Over the seven days of the novel, the village faces waves of outsiders arriving: firstly, Mr Earle – nicknamed Mr Quill and quite possibly the closest thing to a hero this book has, however unlikely an epithet that might be for him – who observes and notes down and records the village, cataloging and categorising each part of the land in preparation for the enclosure of it; three strangers appear, evicted from some other village by the same enclosure of land; Jordan, the usurping landowner using local superstition and his ancient claim through his bloodline with Master Kent’s dead wife to forge a modernist future; and Jordan’s men, rough, ignorant and cruel. Amongst this heady brew of locals and outsiders, crimes are committed, injustices rendered, deaths dealt.
This brave new world sweeps away ancient and traditional ways of life, extinguishing them.
There is one character, the one woman in the group of three outsiders, who dominated the blurb of my copy of the book. She has a tiny role: we see her briefly four times and I don’t think we ever hear her voice. She becomes an object of fascination and horror for the narrator for whom, as a widower in such a small village with almost no single women, the appeal of a new female has a magnetic carnal appeal. She is almost a cipher rather than a character: she lurks outside the harvest dance like Banquo’s ghost; she evades every attempt to find and protect her, or to find her for less hospitable reasons; she never quite escapes the word witch once it is bandied about loosely. Her name is never discovered save for the label Mistress Beldam.
Crace is never, in this book, romantic or idealising in his depiction of village life: the harshness and paltry returns for back-breaking work is unstintingly conveyed. There is a lyrical delight, however, in the language and idioms of the countryside as well as its traditions: the Harvest Queen, the ribaldry of the harvest scene which opens the book, the named of the flowers and plants.
What Crace paints beautifully here is the end of an era, an end of a way of life. There’s no overt political motivation decrying the Enclosure Acts or the relentless march of progress – indeed, Master Kent may have been able to manage the enclosure peacefully and to the benefit of all – but a simple depiction of loss. It is, perhaps, above all, an elegy to a way of life.