Sunday, 23 March 2014

Review of 2013 Man Booker Shortlisted 'Harvest' by Jim Crace (my first mumsnet book review)

A beautifully crafted tale where 'Lark Rise to Candleford' meets 'Heart of Darkness'.

Our protagonist is a well meaning day dreamer, widower Walter Thirsk, who narrates the story of how, in their harvest week, a feudal village is slowly dismantled through misadventure and false retribution.

The story begins in a tiny, timeless village, it could be medieval or Victorian, which already hints at deeper allegorical meaning then this simple story first suggests. The villagers are awoken by smoke and fearfully discover that their Lord of the Manor’s dovecote and stables have been set alight. At the same time they also discover some visitors have arrived on their land and, in an abandoned dwelling, have also lit a fire, in order to cement their common law right to remain on the land.

Thirsk swiftly identifies the arsonists as a few of the village lads he had observed the previous evening under the the influence of 'fairy caps’ (mushrooms). However, when the Lord of the Manor, Master Kent, arrives to observe the damage all the villagers are quick to point the finger at the smokey trespassers, who turn out to be a father, daughter and her husband. The daughter, who is captivatingly beautiful, is given the nickname of Mistress Beldame by the villagers.

Master Kent issues ‘lenient' punishment to the father and son-in-law that involves them being hung in the village Pillory, by their hands, for a week. However, they are sloppily tied  up which results in the death of the father. As Thirsk and Kent realise what’s happened they are descended on by usurper of the Manor, cousin Edmund Jordan. He is accompanied with an entourage of thugs and swiftly confirms their suspicions that change is afoot. Jordan has plans to revolutionise the land and upgrade it from arable farming, to graze sheep on for wool, thus making the villagers both redundant and homeless.

Immediately things begin to unravel in this nameless and Godless village, where despite being supplied with the materials, the church remains unbuilt. There is a strong ‘us’ and ’them’ between the villagers and the Lord and his cousin. Also we suspect Mistress Beldame, like a ghost, haunts the village at night, carrying out brutal acts to avenge the death of her father. 

Thirsk, despite having been resident in the hamlet for 10 years, is still considered a newcomer. He has dark hair in a place where everyone is fair and joined the village whilst under the employ of Master Charles Kent, who through his marriage acquired the Manor and it’s estate and thus control of the village. This is where Thirsk met his wife, Cecily Saxton and he fully embraced his new life, moving from the servants quarters of the Manor to living in a cottage and farming the land. 

Ironically, despite his devotion to the village folk, when things start to go wrong Thirsk is spurned by his neighbours and feels like an outsider, resulting in him returning to his Master’s side. There are several other ironic twists throughout the story. The villagers are desperate to remain on their beloved ancestral homeland, which causes them to act impulsively and thoughtlessly which instead requires them to up and leave or face the lawful consequences of their actions. 
There is also a recurrent theme of often needless finger pointing and re-apportioning of blame, an act of subterfuge which is carried out by nearly every lead character. 

Crace’s beautifully crafted meandering prose takes you on a gentle journey through simple English rural life. Just his sentence structure and verse-like paragraphs, are to any poetry lovers a wondrous delight to read. ’The awns and whiskers of the barley’s ears were brittle and dry enough to chit-chat-chit every time they were disturbed, nattering with ten thousand voices at every effort of the wind or every scarper of a rabbit, mouse of bird'

I also started noting down some examples of sententious verse and swiftly had to stop as there were so many. ‘Dissent is never counted; it is weighed. The master always weighs the most’

Another example of Crace’s immaculate summation of Thirsk’s feelings about his deceased wife Cecily: ‘There’s solace in the thought I will never finish missing her’ For me this sentence captured beautifully that feeling that I think anyone who has lost someone close can relate to, that their memory will never die. 

Crace also doesn’t just describe the warm glow of the English countryside on the brink of Autumn but also it’s aroma, it’s texture and the feelings these sensations evoke within. 

It’s also hard not to like our sensitive, bumbling protagonist, who wears his flaws on his sleeve and wrestles with good intentions versus his self-motivation. He plans to provide a platform for the pilloried father to stand on, but doesn’t get round to it and so the man slips and dies. Throughout the story he comes across as more of a thinker than a doer. When he ends up deciding to take what he deems as revolutionary action against the new Lord of the Manor, this purely involves ploughing a couple of furrows over a field.  However, he does redeem himself at the end with the most passionate of acts. 

Personally, I would have preferred more of a rounded story, as I felt it was like a whodunit and so was expecting some explanation of the various atrocities that take place throughout, in a slightly more satisfyingly spoon-fed ending. However, I appreciated Thirsk's sometimes frustratingly random apparition-like daydreams (including a brief ‘fairy cap’ induced experience), as this created an almost tantalising crescendo as the events slowly unfold that brings about this village’s downfall. 

A deceptively dark read disguised as a gentle story of life in the English countryside; Harvest is articulate, expertly archaic and Crace adeptly demonstrates his abilities as a wordsmith and poet in this accomplished allegorical tale. If you are in love with the English language, especially when it is written by the most skilled of hands, then this book is a joyous must read. 


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