Harvest is set in a small, rural community, ostensibly in the years of the English enclosures, although there's a feeling of timelessness that means it could equally well be taking place in our dystopian future. The barley has just been gathered in, usually a time of rejoicing for the villagers, who all have their part to play in the harvest and its ensuing rituals of celebration. But this year, beginning with the arrival of three strangers in the nearby woodland, a series of unsettling events takes place. Over the course of the next seven days, the very fabric which has bound this isolated community together begins to unravel.
The narrator of this story is Walter Thirsk, also an outsider, who came to the village some years ago as the manservant of the present landowner, Master Kent. Slowly he's settled in, marrying a local lass and setting up home, but with his different looks and ways, he's still considered a newcomer. Now his wife has died, he considers leaving with 'Mr Quill', an educated visitor who's come to map the land. Walter befriends him, helping him to prepare his inks and vellum, only to find when trouble arrives it's easy for suspicion to fall, not just on Mr Quill, but also on Walter himself.
This is a beautifully written allegory of what happens when a community finds itself under threat from external forces, be they the arrival of strangers or technological advances, which mean its deeply traditional way of life is no longer sustainable.
This year the first warm rains were late. The field was slow to blush with green, and what early shoots dared show themselves were shy and flimsy. We watched the barley with anxiety, first fearing drought and then, once our plants reached knee-height, praying that the sky would spare us gales.
That is our custom.There's a hypnotic beat to Crace's writing, a spare usage of words and pleasing measurement of tone which draws the reader in. For the first half of the book, I was engrossed; Walter is an engaging narrator and the events as they unfold are true-to-life, intriguing and often brutal.
I didn't review this novel immediately, because I puzzled over why it lost its hold on me in the final chapters. The prose is as measured as before and the characters for the most part fully formed. Without giving the plot away, I found myself increasingly worried by the lack of any overt spirituality in a community so imbued with ritual. I also struggled to understand the actions of two of the characters once reunited, and thought the events surrounding such a central character as Mr Quill were not adequately explained.
Jim Crace has announced Harvest is to be his last novel and on The Review Show, John Mullan said he didn't think it was his best. On the strength of this, I would happily turn to one of his earlier works to immerse myself in his delicious prose. Of Harvest, I would say there's a great deal to admire in this book and I'd recommend reading it, but ultimately, for me at least, it lacks a satisfying conclusion.
Have you read this novel? What did you think of the ending?
Images courtesy of Picador Books and The Independent.
Harvest by Jim Crace is published by Picador.