Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Long and Short of It: Harvest

BOOK: Harvest by Jim Crace
Format: Hardback

Although some sources name it the favourite to take out this year’s Man Booker prize, I have to say that Jim Crace’s Harvest was the title that interested me the least out of this year’s bunch.  It is one of the few that was available for purchase long before the release of the longlist, and although I’d seen it, I’d never picked it up to have a look.  From the title and the colouring of the cover, I had it pegged as a kind of rural drama, probably set in outback Australia, thus revealing my cultural bias.  In fact, Harvest is an English historical drama centred around the conversion of a small nameless village from wheat and barley farming to sheep farming. 

The story begins with a broad scope, describing the landscape and the hard work being done before zeroing in to the privileged ‘I’ position of Walter Thirsk, although his name is not given away until a few chapters in to the book.  He was not born in the village and does not come from one of its old families, but arrived with the now-Master of the village, Charles Kent.  He and Kent are milk cousins, raised together and both suckled from Mother Thirsk’s breast, though Charles as a nobleman has far more rights than Walter.  Kent is the owner of the village manor by marriage only, and as his wife Lucy died giving birth to a stillborn daughter, their only child, his grip on the land is tenuous at best.  Change is signalled in the village by the lighting of two fires; the first in the master’s dovecote, indicating trouble afoot and the second on the village outskirts, announcing the arrival of newcomers.

The plot immediately follows the pattern of ‘a stranger comes to town’, beginning first with the arrival of Mr Quill (Mr Earle) who is employed to map the nameless village for some unstated reason, Walter being enlisted as his assistant.  Next is the arrival of ‘the Beldams’, two men and a woman who are accused of the trouble in the dovecote and treated like prisoners, despite the fact that most of the village seems to know it was some of their youths responsible.  All keep mum about it.  And Walter once again is set apart from them, having injured his hand in the blaze, and not therefore being present at the sentencing.  Finally, a new lord rides into the village, a Master Jordan who is Kent’s cousin-in-law by marriage and the rightful heir to the land.  He is the one who wishes to convert to the more-profitable practice of sheep-farming.

The language of Harvest is old fashioned yet lyrical and it is easy to see why this book may have been tipped the favourite, as it bears the most similarity so far to the work of previous winner, Hilary Mantel.  However, as a reader I often found my attention waning during the perusal of run on sentences.  Walter’s position as observer gave him insight into the many happenings of this short book, but his point of view was simply not compelling enough to have me hanging off his every word.  I found no reason to feel sympathetic for him, because he clearly felt as if the village were both below him and that they owed him something.  His sadness that they would set him apart at the first sign of trouble is not surprising to the reader as he has been setting himself apart unknowingly all along, first by referring to himself as the master’s milk cousin, and then by sleeping with the desirable but unkind widow Gosse.  When he injures his hand, he makes a show of it so as no one will accuse him of shirking his duties, something no man with the true friendship of his fellows should have to do.  It is as if he expects them to think he is faking to get out of work. 

He is also set apart from them in his ideas; he does not understand the need to punish the Beldams for the actions of others and only does not dob in his neighbours because he fears the anger of all the others, I believe.  Fundamentally, Walter Thirsk is a coward.  He does not pull a stone up to the pillory for the short man tethered there because he fears ruining his hand and being useless for work in the future.  But he does not go for help either.  As a result, the man dies.  I learned a lot about Walter from what he did not manage to do while reading Harvest

This book would not be my pick for the Man Booker Prize of this year, although I do think that I would read more of Jim Crace’s books in the future.  I certainly recommend this book to anyone who likes well considered historical fiction, particularly as I said, fans of Mantel.  Bodice-ripper this is not.  It is a work which is deeply psychological, examining the human spirit in the face of tension and change. 



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