Centuries ago in an unspecified rural location, a small village of farmers spot a mysterious cloud of smoke coming from the outskirts of their land. This occurrence might not seem extraordinary, and certainly not any cause for alarm, but to the villagers it signifies a change in the air. It means that outsiders are nearby, perhaps watching them. Are the owners of this smoke cloud friend or foe? No one can be sure at first, but when the village master’s dovecote is destroyed by a fire, the fearful community turns to the mysterious smoke cloud for answers. As they soon learn, the fire belongs to a small family – The Beldams – that has set up camp near the village, and though they may look harmless enough, someone must pay for the crime that has been committed.
Told from the perspective of a widowed villager named Walter Thirsk, Harvest takes place over just seven days – long enough for a world to be created in the Biblical sense, but just long enough for it to be completely dismantled and destroyed for the villagers. At the same time the Beldam family is spotted, the isolated community is further disrupted by the presence of a land surveyor, who has been observing the community and making maps of their land. What could it all possibly mean? The villager don’t know for sure, but they assume the worst. And of course a group mentality of fear and foreboding quickly emerges and requires immediate action from the village leaders. But what begins as a united front against the Beldams swiftly crumbles into a scattered and hysterical mindset. The villagers turn on each other, and after just seven days, Walter Thirsk is the only man left to observe the broken and abandoned fields.
While there is certainly a great deal of tension and mystery to Harvest, it’s not the most engaging read from this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. But even though the slow pace and dense prose was frustrating, by the end of the novel it feels somehow appropriate and even necessary. As Crace shows, the mind can unravel at a breakneck pace, but this dismantling may only be recognizable when the damage is already done. Harvest is heavy despite its length of just 224 pages, but by the end of the book, Crace’s expertise in penning complicated and dangerous emotions like paranoia, fear, displacement, loneliness, and desire is starkly evident. This, in turn, makes Walter Thirsk one of the most tedious and weary narrators in contemporary literature, but also one that is haunting and infectious. As I mentioned in our podcast discussion of this book, Harvest is not a book that I enjoyed reading, but it will never be a book that I regret putting on my shelf. As quickly as the mysterious smoke arose and disappeared, Harvest will quietly and unapologetically nudge its way under your skin and into the recesses of your mind.
This review was simultaneously published on Typographical Era