My first experience of Jim Crace’s writing was when a colleague at the V&A recommended his novel Being Dead for our newly inaugurated staff book club. I wasn’t keen; reading about dead bodies didn’t sound like a thrilling way to spend an evening. However, I was surprised to find a compelling tale that was beautifully written. I had found something special in his style; a clarity and a lyricism that was finely crafted but completely without pretension. As such, I fully intended to read everything else he had written, but as always, life got in the way. So, when Harvest found its way onto the Booker Prize Shortlist, I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in another of his novels at long last.
Set in the rural landscape of pre-industrial Britain, Harvest is the story of a tiny, unnamed community nestled in the timeless folds of England’s green and pleasant land. For years the same people have lived there and farmed its fields, their lives marked and measured by the changing of the seasons. They exist peacefully and harmoniously, their histories and interests inextricably linked, generation after generation. We view them through the eyes of Walter Thirsk, a relative newcomer to this community, having followed the new Master of the estate to the village upon his marriage to the heiress of the manor a decade previously. Walter has grown to love the land and its people; despite the death of his wife, he has stayed on, grafting his life to those of his neighbours and bending his ways to their routines. Master Kent is their benign, benevolent overseer, an unshowy widower whose own devotion to the land sees him mucking in with those who depend upon him for their livelihood. They want for little and ask for nothing but to be left alone to work their land, indulge their primal desires, and participate in the feasts and festivities that mark the passing of the seasons. This is a simple, unadulterated world, ungoverned even by religion, as they have never bothered to build the church they made a space for many years before.
This idyll is destroyed swiftly over a period of seven days when newcomers arrive and upset the equilibrium of daily life. The arrival of these travellers, accused of stealing doves from the Master, reveals an unexpected darkness at the heart of the villagers that reveals how fear and self interest cannot help but infect even the most simple of lives. At the same time, a man the villagers call Mr Quill also arrives, sent for by Master Kent to draw a map of the open land belonging to the community and parcel it off into sections. Over the next few days, as the newcomers and their transgressions are punished, the realisation dawns that the mapping of the land is foreshadowing a bigger change to come, and the villagers begin to turn on one another in their desire to save themselves, the world we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel falls completely apart.
This is a fascinating, compelling novel that speaks to the human condition and our inherent hatred of change. Crace encourages us to indulge in our feelings of nostalgia and affection for a golden age when people knew their neighbours and were content with their place before carefully deconstructing this image and revealing the reality beneath the surface of such naive idealism. I loved every word; Crace is such a remarkable stylist and his imagery has a power so strong that I felt I was stalking the mud caked lanes of this golden hued pre-industrial world. Of all the novels I have read from the Booker shortlist, this is the one that has stayed with me the longest. It was beautiful but also profoundly disturbing, and I very much hope that this won’t be his last novel, as he has threatened. I have the feeling that his best is still yet to come.