By Jim Crace
2013 / 224 Pages
The promise of a man
It’s a curious thing, the way one can attempt to trace the threads that bind together each batch of six novels that are annually shortlisted for the United Kingdom’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. Sometimes, like last year, the connections are devastatingly obvious: Harold Fry, Futh, and Kitty Finch are all restless, misunderstood souls? You don’t say!
Other times sussing out the linkages and connecting all of the dots requires a much more thoughtful examination of each of the books in question. While I haven’t quite managed to make my way through each of the nominees yet, the further that I do progress in my reading, the clearer it becomes that Jim Crace’s final novel Harvest sits at 2013’s thematic epicenter. Allow me to explain.
Displacement connects Harvest and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Both novels present protagonists who are grappling with a homeland and a society that is falling apart before their very eyes. For Harvest’s Walter Thirsk, displacement arrives by way of strangers who threaten to undermine the very fabric of his small community’s existence. In We Need New Names, Zimbabwe is crumbling around ten-year-old Darling. Schools are closing and people’s homes are being destroyed by policemen.
Religion connects Harvest and Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. Toibin’s novella is told through the eyes of Mary as she recounts her son’s final days. Crace’s novel takes place over exactly seven days (creation!) and with its repeated references to God and Adam it serves as one long metaphor for man’s fall from the Garden of Eden.
I’ve yet to sense Him standing at our shoulders, sickle in His hand. I’ve yet to feel Him lightening the plow. No, we dare to think and even say among ourselves, there’d be no barley if we left it to the Lord, not a single blade of it. Well, actually, there’d be no field, except a field of by-blows and weeds; the nettles and tares, the thorns and brambles He preferred when He abandoned Eden. You never find Him planting crops for us. You never find us planting weeds. But still we have to battle with His darnel and His fumiter, we have to suffer from His fleas and gnats and pests. He makes us pay the penalty of Adam.
The history of the common man connects Harvest and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. Through its foreshadowing of the eventual Enclosure Act, Crace’s novel is a piece of historical fiction told through the eyes of the common man. Lahiri’s The Lowland introduces readers to a pair of ordinary brothers who live through a period of equally, if not more so, historical significance in Calcutta.
Miscommunication connects Harvest and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. In Harvest, the inability to properly process cause and effect leads to disastrous consequences for an entire community. In A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki highlights how miscommunication has evolved into an art form over the ensuing years. One that relies less and less on face-to-face human interaction and more and more on the cold, lifeless machines that we place between ourselves and our fellow man.
Truth connects Harvest and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Or perhaps more specifically secrets do as in this case they seem to be two sides of the same coin. Both novels live or die based on how successful the author is in introducing and revealing (or choosing not to reveal) information at the appropriate time and both highlight the negative effects that secret keeping can have on an entire population of people. In Catton’s novel the secrets are far too numerous to name and each plays an integral role in her complex storytelling formula. In Harvest the reader is exposed to the idea that even a single secret has the capacity to destroy everything.
As I come to the close of this article I realize that this isn’t really a proper book review. It wasn’t my intention to write about connecting themes when I plopped myself down in front of the computer, but nevertheless here we are.
Irrespective of the other five nominees, Harvest is an accomplished work. Crace has a beautiful way with language that immerses the reader in the setting and a maddeningly slow storytelling technique that adequately replicates what one would imagine the daily grind of its subject’s life to feel like. It isn’t always action pact, but it’s cerebrally engaging and thought-provoking throughout, and its protagonist Walter Thirsk has one of the most authentic sounding voices you’re likely to come across all year.