A Novel by Jim Crace
2013 /208 pages
Within the first few pages, I wanted to toss this book and yell “Boring! Boring!” The latter I did. Quite a lot, actually. But, it’s not a large book, only 208 pages, and I felt I owed it to my BookerMark kin to keep at it. And, I’m glad I did. After a spell, I fell into the cadence, which mirrors ye olde time England quite well. Harvest is not modern, in setting or in style. Though the themes are timeless; being an outsider, mass group-think, violence, loyalty, to name a few.
The story takes place on a large swath of land where Master Kent keeps the manor and about 60 farmers and the like work the land in a mutually-beneficial feudal-like system. Many of them were born on the land and most haven’t even left its borders; they are completely isolated from the rest of the world. This insular community operates with their own rules and traditions. As such, in Jim Crace’s brilliant hands, this could take place at any time period; the isolation is that strong and their situation is that static. Enter our narrator, Walter Thirsk. Once an outsider himself come to be mostly accepted on the inside, he will soon be reminded of his outsider status again. Thirsk has lived on the land for 12 years, initially as Master Kent’s right-hand-man in the manor. He then married a “local” and moved into his own house. It is his strange inside/outside role that makes him a fascinating choice to narrate. You are never entirely sure if he is reliable, but you have no choice but to hear his turn of events.
And the turn of events is such: A fire is spotted. That must mean visitors. At the same time, the dovecoat is set afire (presumably by three local hooligans that Thirsk knows but never names publicly). Well, who are the village folk to blame? The newcomers, of course! Anger, serious violence, and a complete loss of rationality sends the villagers to seek out the visitors, attack them, and then place the two men into a pillory. (For me, this brought to mind Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.) The woman left behind becomes a mysterious ghost that looms ever present in the village, as both a figure of desire and witchery, but is rarely seen. Thirsk is determined to better the older man’s positioning in the pillory, for he sees that he is uncomfortable. Thirsk will find a log so he can better stand! Then it rains. Thirsk retires. Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow, he thinks. But then it’s too late; the old man is dead. Much of this happens throughout the novel. Thirsk thinks to do things to better the situation, but in the end remains a bystander, simply making the situation worse by his recurring omissions. Thirsk is probably the most guilty of all in Harvest.
At the same time, Master Kent’s position at the manor is threatened by a cousin, who is actually the rightful heir to the land. Master Jordan and his entourage descend upon the village and make the villagers their victims. It is a strange round-robin game of victims becoming assailants becoming victims; once the master, now the hired-hand. Then more treachery abounds in the village. A horse is killed, more thievery, raping, and attacking. What happens when you take a peaceful village and simply scratch the surface? When a scapegoat is needed, group-think takes over and all logical thinking is abandoned. The violence issued by the villagers is atrocious. Then they are surprised when violence, in the hands of Master Jordan, is brought down on them.
In the end, I found that the writing was still very self-conscious. And it circumvented directness with a lot of filler and formality. Crace was definitely trying to harken to a certain time and style of writing. This gothic tale reminded me of Poe and Henry James. The creepiness throughout was implied, but often I was distracted by the language to really feel the mood. The writing is a bit opaque; you have to parse out the meaning. That said, I have no idea how this story could have been told better.
I have left quite a lot out. Initially you think, not a lot happens in this story. But then you realize quite a lot has happened! It’s impossible to get to every tentacle that Crace expertly wove through here. This would be a wonderful choice for a book club. It is still early yet in my reading of the Man Booker Prize longlist, but I think it could be a contender.