by Jim Crace
Picador, 273pp, £16.99
Regular critical acclaim has scarcely been matched by jackpot sales.
Crace bucks trends; he rarely repeats himself. He writes better in the first person, as was evident straight from his debut – seven short pieces of literary muscle-flexing adventure packed inside one slimmish volume, the myth-making Continent, in 1986.
Cleverly, he has avoided creating a singular place called Craceland to which reviewers may attach him. The title Continent now seems prophetic. His settings range from present to future, spanning continents of diversity, from the metropolitan risk portrayed in “Arcadia” to the heat of George Bush’s Texas in “All That Follows”. He has a penchant for lighting fires along the way, which he does in Harvest, both at the outset and in conclusion when his narrator, Walter Thirsk, turns his broad back on the smoky, deliberate devastation of his village, escaping the “ginger cats of flame”.
Thirsk is a wonderfully complex creation, self-examining, self-admonishing, telling far less about himself than you might suppose as he casts his astute, omnivorous eye across the tumble of rural life in the bird’s-nest village (never named), so completely rendered in all its babble, odour and topsy-turvy terrain as to draw you in within a handful of pages.
Above the village looms the manor house, where presides the benign Master Kent. A bucolic idyll seems in the offing: Thirsk, turning painterly, tells us, “The barn that survived the fire is full of harvesters, lying back on bales of hay … drinking ale from last year’s barley crop. Lanterns throw out such deep and busy shadows that my neighbours are … grotesques…There are parsley balls and stewed giblets. The hand-reared calf, rejected by its mother in the spring, and kept by Master Kent, has been slaughtered for its pain.”
Yet all those present are, it seems, “soiled with a smudge of shame”. In the village’s pillories stretch the pained bodies of two strangers thought responsible for the novel’s opening fire. Both have been shorn, as has the woman, Mistress Beldam, their accomplice, now skulking in the trees, causing stirrings in the loins of the village’s men, Thirsk included. “I have not sinned against the woman yet, except the sin of thinking it, of thinking that she might not want to sleep alone … “ he muses while hunting her unsuccessfully.
Will she be caught? Will Thirsk’s desire achieve consummation? Will the pilloried men receive mercy and be released? A ghostly suspense prevails.
Into the village’s travails comes Mr Quill, hired by the Master to chart the demesne in the name of progress, in the furtherance of a dream to replace the uncertainties of harvests dependent on weather with the prospect of a livelihood based on raising and shearing sheep, a dream, notes Thirsk, without ironic condescension, “which makes us rich and leisurely … sitting at our fires at home and weaving fortunes for ourselves from yarn.”
Imbuing “yarn” with its double meaning seems exemplary of Thirsk’s wit, which rounds the villagers and their relationships into a wryly affectionate portrait. Born elsewhere, he seeks their acceptance (though not belonging). Thus it is Quill, a fellow outsider, to whom Thirsk gravitates for close friendship, and for his bedroom needs he turns to Mistress Gosse, a snug and hammocky village widow.
The book is full of obvious themes – crime and punishment, identity and legacy, isolation and inclusion – none bigger though than societal change and adjustment, which makes this a novel of all too clear political parallels with today.
Its generic rurality makes of the village an old world Everyplace; its unspecified phase in history (the late 18th century seems to be congruent with the details of everyday life as Thirsk reveals them), frees the author to simply concentrate on layering the story’s drama from within.
Impressively, everything in the novel serves the narrative. There are times when Walter Thirsk’s turmoils appear more powerful than his description of them suggests. At times too the novel’s villain (who enters late to change the whole course of the village’s fate), seems over-purpled. But overall this very beautifully written novel gives pause for thought and unearths a quintessential England, never stereotyped, which is also deeply and humanly unique. And, until he writes an even better one, this, for me, is Crace’s most satisfying, and probably, best book.