Harvest, Jim Crace
Harvest, Jim Crace has stated, is to be his last novel. If that is the case, what a way to go out. Harvest tells the tale of the events of seven days in an unnamed village at an unspecified date some centuries in the past, told by a narrator, Walter Thirsk, a townsman who “tumbled into love” with the countryside and then with one of its womenfolk twelve years previously. As the novel opens, three strangers have set up a shelter in one of the village fields and have lit a fire, which, custom dictates, gives them the right to stay. But there is another fire, this time in the dovecote of the local manor, and by tacit agreement of the villagers, the three strangers are held to be responsible for that blaze also. From that point on, consequence upon consequence unfolds, and with each inevitable consequence comes a further unravelling of a whole way of life that to that point has been measured only by the rhythm of the seasons.
There is a wonderful marriage in the novel between form and content. Like the simple ear of barley which is described at one moment in the book as containing “barley pearls”, the unassuming narrative style produces a deceptive richness of imagery throughout. The ostensible simplicity echoes perfectly the way of life it describes. The short sentences create a natural forward momentum; there is a soft pulsing rhythm to the prose, which almost invites reading aloud.
The simplicity of the telling, however, belies the many and weighty themes raised by this tale. The setting in the past allows for the initial establishment of an innocent, Eden-like world; beyond that the period matters not. The questions are eternal: justice and natural justice, revenge, loyalty, loneliness, courage, the irreversible march of ‘progress’, the fracturing of society. Many of the characters, like the village, remain unnamed; responsibility for several of the pivotal incidents remains largely unconfirmed. This openness means that although the novel is very definitely set in the past, it also achieves a timelessness.
A beautiful and thought-provoking book, and a fitting end, if end it is, to a distinguished career.
At the time of writing, Harvest is vying for the position of favourite to win the Man Booker with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a novel three times its length. While the latter is undoubtedly extremely well written and intricately plotted, there is nothing in the first 150 pages at least to rival the depth of Crace’s work.
As you sow so shall you reap. We shall see.