Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Harvest, by Jim Crace

"What starts with fire will end with fire, it has been said".

Shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize Harvest is certainly an intense, slow burner. A painfully claustrophobic narrative detailing the tragic consequences of suspicion and mob mentality. Set in an unnamed English farming village in an unspecified period in time, narrator Walter Thirsk documents the decline and collapse of the village, his home for the last 12 years, throughout a 7 day period.

When a fire at the manor house coincides with the arrival of three strangers, the suspicion of the village residents is quickly aroused. Their hostility quickly escalates into violence and their actions set into motion a chain of events that will lead to the destruction of the village, their community and the way of life of the farmers and their families. To further heighten the already fraught atmosphere, an unknown town cousin of the master arrives to claim ownership of the farm. The cousin's presence and his thirst for modernity and progress means that the Harvest that has just been completed will be the last and unimaginable changes await the grain growing community. 

Harvest is certainly an incredibly atmospheric novel, with malice and violence bubbling just beneath the surface of rural life. The threat and the fear of unexpected outburst dominate Walter's narrative. The descriptions are immersive and evocative- the farmer's life is not exactly idealised, but the sense of gentle community and mutual respect for neighbour and nature comes across well. Narrator Walter paints a picture of simple people with simple pleasures and honest lives, though it is clear to the reader that there is more to the residents than the desire for a quiet life.

The plot is skilfully shaped and crafted, despite not being extensive. I was impressed with the way in which Walter had a unique perspective on the events that unfold within his village. He has not witnessed some of the things he is speaking of, so he can be considered unreliable in his reportage. This adds an extra layer of uncertainty to the reader's perceptions in a narrative that's full of unexpected events and unforeseen consequences. He may also be the only character with a true understanding of all preceding events, so the only one with the power to have saved the village from ruin. Walter is conflicted too in his narration, not quite an outsider but not village-born either.

Whilst I enjoyed reading this, I can't say as I was blown away by it. I found Walter to be a bit mopey and wondered what his true motivations were sometimes. I'd have liked to have known more about him. To say he is the character to whom we are most exposed, the reader never gets to know him. The prose is beautifully and skilfully written, haunting and evocative and Crace creates an incredibly strong sense of place. However, I did feel that it was at the expense of characters and plot. The lasting impression that I took away from this narrative was that the land that has been ploughed, sowed, harvested and grazed would probably go on forever, whether there was anybody there to see or care or not. I felt I knew the character of the fields better than anybody that worked them, which may or may not have been the intention all along.

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