Friday, October 18, 2013

Harvest, Jim Crace

Jim Crace turns a pastoral idyll upside down, with the most breathtaking descriptions I have read in a long time. The rhythm is mesmerizing, creating a fearless poetic landscape not simply of the farmlands Walter Thirsk has inhabited with his fellow villagers, but of the human heart. It may not have won the Man Booker, but this shortlister was well worth the read!

Thirsk came to the unnamed village at an unknown moment in history, to be estimated as anywhere between the 1770s, and the 1880s. This is when the Houses of Parliament were tweaking their fifteen or so varying Enclosure Acts, giving landowners the power to take what had been unfenced common fields, and close them off as sheep herding land. He is not born of the lands he has found himself on, but considers himself a vital part of the community, having been married to one of the locals before her unexpected passing. The simultaneous discovery of foreigners on the outskirts of the villagers' realm, as well as the setting of the barn fire the day after harvest, sets the community to wondering and finger pointing, making even the recently widowed Thirsk's place within the group uncertain.

“There's not a season set aside for pondering and reveries. It will not let us hesitate or rest; it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it. It has no time to listen to our song. It only asks us not to tire in our hard work. It wants to see us leathery, our necks and fore-arms burnt as black as chimney oak; it wants to leave us thinned and sinewy from work. It taxes us from dawn to dusk, and torments us at night; that is the taxing that the thrush complains about. Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools.”

To make matters far more tense, Thirsk and his neighbors have noticed another stranger in their midst during harvest. They come to call this one Mr. Quill, as he is mapping out the details of their village. Mr. Quill is clearly working with the support of their landowner Master Kent, a childhood friend of Thirsk's despite class differences, and also a widower. Sadly, Kent is about to be overturned by a direct inheritor of the land; despite years of gently ruling his country neighbors and sharing the labor of planting and harvest. Kent is to be usurped for having no male heir, by his brother in law who will enclose the lands for sheep, scattering the great majority of the villages' population to the winds.

“The mood has changed. It's heavier. We were liquid; now we're stones."

Of course all of these issues culminate into violence; the villagers assume the worst of the new faces on their lands and throw the menfolk of the group in the stocks with a week's sentence for the barn fire. Despite Thirsk's suspicion that a handful of local troublemakers were actually to blame, he keeps quiet.

An accidental death, the spilled secret of what is to be done to the common land, and a grisly attack on the landowner's horse launch all the inhabitants of the village into action, be it for self preservation, or to maintain some semblance of control on the violence. A couple women, and even a small girl are rounded up for questioning, and abused until they confess to witchcraft. The villagers close in upon themselves, labeling Thirsk and the foreigners as enemies.

Our narrator was far from perfect, despite his habit of romanticizing the village and his work. He is pushed and tested to his absolute limits, and Crace sort of shocks the reader with how far even Thirsk was willing to go; this seemingly mild mannered introvert becomes a daring witness to both sides of the village's fall, trusted by Master Kent with the scope of the problems as more than just another farm laborer.

Yet this is not a novel red with blood or loaded with violence; it is tastefully wrought, more of a major catalyst for how the villagers will never be able to recover what they had as the novel opened. Harvest is a brilliant novel about change, survival, and xenophobia, and could not possibly be more timely. So much changes in our own landscape, and Crace's novel asks us: are we too busy being afraid of what we don't know, to notice that what could truly damage us was right under our noses?

No comments:

Post a Comment