Book review: Harvest by Jim Crace

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THE much-admired but somewhat uncategorisable English novelist Jim Crace doesn’t exactly avoid those twin preoccupations of the contemporary ­British novelist, sex and class; but he does strip them back to their elemental origins.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Picador, £16.99

He ­examines these forces in terms of how they unite and divide us, split and organise communities, engender and undo shared myths – not, or not wholly, as they preoccupy individuals.

Although subjective feeling and experience of course plays into his work, Crace is on the whole interestingly uninterested in the inner crises of the individual. He told The Paris Review in 2003: “Narrative’s much more deeply placed within us than just personal biography.”

His own specific context for this, he claims, is an uneventful history and an unproductive degree of contentment on his own part. “I can’t raid my past for raw material because my past is so dull, so I have to make it all up, I have to start from scratch, inventing alternate landscapes to fill with invented people and invented narratives.”

Disingenuously characterised or not, this drive to escape the subjective takes Crace to some fascinating places – he’s written about Christ in the ­wilderness, in Quarantine, and about two characters who are already deceased when the narrative begins, in Being Dead. He trawls the past for communities in transition, and makes up the detail when he feels inclined. This refusal to be bound by accurate historical reconstruction means that his historically set novels blend researched “truth” with free invention; English history with internationally a­pplicable allegory.

In Harvest, the setting is a rural English village with a long-established, self-sufficient way of life. The date’s unspecified, but things certainly feel pre-19th century – a farming expert could doubtless root things more precisely based on the agricultural detail given. Since the residents have very limited contact with anyone beyond the village boundaries, just how developed things are in the rest of the world is impossible to surmise. At points, it’s even tempting to ponder whether this hamlet might be some oblivious outpost of the modern world, exempted thus far from technological progress. (Just such a notion drove M Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film The Village, and there was presented as a creepy form of collective self-protection from life’s harsh realities; but it’s worth remembering that “primitive” as opposed to “developed” ways of life – reliance on the seed and the plough, vulnerability to the elements, clear and present fear of blight or invasion or disease – are only the stuff of distant fantasy in some parts of the world.)

Whatever the specific point in time, this settlement (which doesn’t even have a name: “It is just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land…”) is on the brink of change. Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, begins with frequent recourse to a collective first-person, as if the community thinks as one; tellingly, he grows more isolated and his voice more individualistic as the story progresses. Subtle commercial pressures from the direction of the local aristocrat for whom they all work are pulling the villagers away from their traditional reliance on cattle farming and towards a new dependence on wool, the production of which would connect them with outside trade, and move them away from “a common system which only benefits the common”.

In service of their master’s new ambition, their territory is for the first time being mapped. The sinister implications of these moves towards organised industry are somehow shadowed in the arrival of three chaotic outsiders – a woman and two men – who are greeted with aggression and suspicion, and duly take bloody revenge. Around the placid but watchful widower Thirsk certainties fracture with bewildering speed; fear of the new fuses with fear of the old, and hostility toward newcomers with mistrust of old friends, as fear of witchcraft takes hold, and each ­villager’s loyalties are re-­examined in an atmosphere of building tension.

Crace evokes this musty, murky world, and the ambiguous persona of our protagonist within it, with wit and immediacy that bring it touchably close. He’s generally wonderful on smell and texture, and specifically wonderful on the intense sensory detail of manual work, whether it’s tanning a hide, ploughing a field or drawing a map. The story that he constructs is involving and mysterious, stoked by vividly descriptive prose that’s never wastefully or showily verbose.

Crace seems to feel his environment – and to know his oddball, not-quite-trustworthy narrator – down to the bones. The ambiguity that can be so beguiling in his work, however, can also leave the reader out in the cold. The three outsiders who are set up as such significant catalysts for disorder remain at arm’s length, the woman inexplicably compelling to all who see her but never given solid form for the reader.

The community’s collapse is grippingly rendered, but its meaning remains obscure – in part because we hear of its detail only via the perspective of a self-interested and evidently somewhat unreliable narrator. The result is a tale that frustrates interpretation and ultimately verges on the nihilistic. Still, Crace’s staunch refusal to tell us what we should be thinking is bold and challenging, and the lucidity of his prose is a pleasure in itself. «

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill