Harvest by Jim Crace

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Reviewed by Karen Heenan-Davies

…. rain or shine, the earth abides, the land endures, the soil will persevere for ever and a day.

Taken in isolation that quote from Harvest might lull you into thinking Jim Crace’s novel is purely a homage to the timeless quality of the countryside.  It isn’t.  Nor is it a sentimentalised evocation of England’s green and pleasant land. Nor could you describe it as a tribute to the symbiotic relationship between the land and the generations of dwellers for whom the land has provided a means of existence.

Instead it’s a deeply thoughtful story that examines the human consequences of a rupture in a traditional way of life.  In the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” the era of subsistence agriculture is about to give way to the era of wool production.

The setting is a small rural English community known simply as The Village. Enclosed by ancient oaks and dry-stone walls, life for the 58 Villagers follows a ceaseless cycle of sowing, planting and harvesting required to eke out even the barest of subsistence livings.  The Village exists in a bubble where the regular routine is seldom troubled by anything beyond the boundaries of their settlement.

Even if the inhabitants are not fully aware of it, this is a way of life that is threatened. As the novel opens, smoke wisps are still rising from the ruins of a stable at the local manor house – the result, the villagers believe, of an arson attack. Barely have they recovered from that shock when there is a further signal of a disturbing nature.  Newcomers have arrived, taking advantage of a law that gives them the right to settle within the village’s boundaries as long as they can put up a rudimentary shelter and send up smoke before they are caught. The events become conflated in the minds of the villagers, fearful that the year’s disastrous harvest will have to stretch even further.

What the villagers do not know is that there is an even more profound change on the horizon. The manor lord Master Kent has always taken a paternalistic attitude towards his tenants but now his claim to the estate has been revoked.  The new lord intends to enclose all the fields, turning them from crop growing to the more profitable venture of sheep grazing. The villagers who have tended these fields for generations will be forced out when the land they farm in common is enclosed for sheep. When he arrives to take stock of his new estate complete with his entourage of strong- arm men, aggression, violence and death soon ensue.

Our guide to these events is Walter Thirsk, an old boyhood friend and former servant of Master Kent. Although he’s lived in the village for a dozen years or so after his marriage to a local girl, the villagers still view him as an outsider. Walter has a deep and abiding affection for the fields and oaks around him, viewing them as a form of Eden.  But he has no illusions about the way nature can be inflexible and stern, presenting hardships for those who make their living from the land. He is a realist who knows that the world around him is changing and that it will be to the detriment of his community. For all the new master’s talk of a new order “to all our advantages” and the prospect of a life without hard work and where uncertain grain harvests will be swapped for the predictability of sheep farming,  the effects of enclosure for him will be  “to throw a halter around our neck.”

Walter sees the economic and human consequences of enclosure. But he also sees it as a rupture of man’s connection to his past.

We’re used to looking out and seeing what’s preceded us, and what will also outlive us. … Those woods that linked us to eternity will be removed… That grizzled oak which we believe is so old it must have come from Eden to our fields will be felled and routed out. That drystone wall put up before our grandpa’s time …. will be brought down entirely ….until there is no trace of it. We’ll look across these fields and say, ‘This land is so much younger than ourselves.’

Crace relates this story in language that at times borders on poetry. There is a close attention to detail with names of hedgerow plants for example. Whether there are actually plants called sorehock, ruddock or suffingale is debatable, given Crace’s notorious tendency for playful invention, but they certainly sound authentic. He also provides some wonderfully evocative phrases. My particular favourite was ‘the Turd and Turf’, an area which does double duty as both latrine and burial ground.  Crace has a real feel for the landscape – its shape, its sounds and its smells – but even more powerfully rendered is his appreciation for man’s relation to the land.

It’s a slim book in a physical sense but tackles large themes; of life, death, change and renewal. Is it purely a reflection on the past? Or is Crace, in what he’s declared is his final novel, also sounding a warning for the future, encouraging us to look for signs of impending change in our own relationship with our past and with our roots?

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Karen Heenan-Davies blogs at Bookertalk

Jim Crace, Harvest (Picador, 2014) 288 pages.

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