on 25 October 2014
Jim Crace's novel starts off promisingly - a group of strangers come to a remote village in what we assume is medieval England, trouble breaks out, and soon the village is in turmoil, only for further threats to arise when a relative of the local lord and landowner arrives to impose his will. The prose is beautiful and often poetic, and Crace's language to describe rustic life and long-forgotten agricultural practices is superb. The only real concern I had with this book was that the beauty of the prose seems to have outweighed the story itself, and I found myself losing interest in Walter Thirsk, the sympathetic main character, particularly in the closing third of the tale. This was a pity, as I do think that Crace could have done a little more to craft a more compelling story with more developed characters, some of whom are rustic caricatures. Worth a read, but I can see why it didn't win the 2013 Booker prize for which it was shortlisted.
on 5 August 2014
In some ways this is a simple story about the arrival of strangers in a remote rural area at the time of the barley harvest. Yet the protagonist (Walter Thirsk) is also a relative newcomer still grieving his dead wife, and can observe the events with some detachment. The strangers comprise so-called Mr Quill who is surveying the land for Master Kent and a family group of three who arrive and set up their camp at the beginning of the book.
Yet really the danger comes from another stranger, Master Jordan, who has managed to usurp Master Kent but the villagers are unable to distinguish friend from foe and set upon the family group with disastrous consequences.
What I liked about this book was the detail of the rural life which made the reader aware of the isolation and lawlessness of some rural areas and how the lurking dangers of fire, injury or random justice could ruin a man's life forever.
The characters are all drawn well and the plot moves along a pace beyond the wit of the villagers - yet there are also themes of loneliness and grief (Thirsk and Kent), bravery (Mr Quill) and fear (pretty much everyone).
It was almost a five star for me.
on 30 September 2013
Harvest is an excellent read. It held me from page one and the whole sense of a peculiar world and micro-culture was at times quite eerie! I liked the first person narrative, seeing the world through Walter's eyes and how the story gradually revealed its twists and turns. On the one hand I felt uplifted by the sense that there is always a new beginning. Nevertheless it was a pretty chilling tale. The themes are dark, revealing a quagmire of tension and betrayal under the picturesque veneer of village life. The author's thickly descriptive and evocative prose portrays such oppositional aspects of the landscape in the swamp and the barley field which are excellent metaphors for the social world in which he negotiates his being. Life and security are fragile in this weirdly timeless environment. While the whole fabric is shifting from subsistence to cash crop, a whole community disintegrates in a rapid sequence of disturbing events. Yet it is also about redemption, moving on, rising from the ashes. This is I think a work of eerie genius, reminding us how life can change very dramatically in a short time, how people can become unrecognisable. The historical period was also intriguing, as well as the fact that the reader had to figure it out as the book progressed. Brilliant book.
Rarely has the cliché of never judge a book by the cover applied so richly to Jim Crace's supposed final novel. In Harvest, not only is Crace preparing to herd the sheep in his rural idyll, he's already pulling the wool over most readers' eyes. For all its pretence, it's easy to come away believing this is simply an historical romp with a bit of witchcraft, serfs and lords and an evolving countryside sometime whenever. It is but it really isn't.
And so to its cover. Harvest is a simple tale of a short time in a village being wrenched from its past; a society falling apart both from within and without. Crace abandons his usual erudite prose for a style that is altogether more luxurious and poetic. It certainly will not be a style that reads easily for some and even for Crace's biggest fans it may be laborious and overly flowery. Treacle and wading come to mind, though it is high literary and a task in itself to keep it all up. So no this is not typical Crace and he knows it.
Great books have the ability to shock and surprise. That turning point, crime fiction aside, when one realises not quite whodunit but whydunit. Crace pulls the master stunt. This reviewer at least had the moment within the last few pages; that here we have Crace's story, Crace's journey into retirement. Read carefully and the clues are there. The narrator who is never present at the events, the quill plotter of space and time, the muse destructive and just out of reach but still tangible, the order the chaos, the reaping of sustenance from the barren, the vellum the blank page.... find the others for yourself. Any arguments about time and place, when smoking pipes was invented or the feudal system began or ended or any other historical accuracies are puerile. Sure Crace wanted a sound setting but it's a cover, a big green woolly cover.
So, read Harvest as you wish. But it is pure allegory rather than medieval fields that Crace ploughs and it becomes all the more enlivened and dynamic when hauled out of any historical drama into Crace's real heart as he says goodbye.
Fascinating and so much better than the superficial bare bones of this book relay.
on 11 March 2013
I would have to agree with an earlier reviewer; this is a book to read, if at all possible, at a single sitting. It draws you totally into its world, a world both particular and universal. The obscure rural community where events unfold - lacking even a church, it can barely be dignified by the name "village" - is described in minutely convincing detail, but the themes are universal. Not since "The Road" have I read a novel so stark, so gripping and in places, so beautiful. Yet the desperately hard way of life here is described with no illusions. Strangers are fair game - gang rape and the pillory are two possible fates, subsistence farming leaves the population on the brink of starvation, ravaged by disease and at the mercy of their manorial landowner in a society where class shouts louder than anything else and crimes, both real and perceived, are viciously and arbitrarily punished.
But there is beauty, too, particularly in Crace's detailed evocation of a landscape minutely known and cherished, the rhythms of nature and the consolations of love, community and celebration. All this is shattered when enclosure threatens the villagers' way of life, and things rapidly fall apart. Within a week, the community has collapsed. This book gives you a window into one of the least understood human tragedies in English history, the forced theft of common land which, some historians believed, dispossessed the common people and created a workforce for the Industrial Revolution. The story told here, though historic in particular, is happening to this day in many countries of the world.
However, this is not a political book, nor is it just the elegy for a lost pastoral idyll. It's also a fascinating study about fitting in, or rather not fitting in. Walter Thirske finds himself caught between two worlds - though he has lived among the villagers for over ten years he also has ties to the landowner and a level of education and insight that sets him apart in a deeply suspicious, isolated community under pressure. He finds himself emotionally involved and yet curiously detatched from the events unfolding around him, never quite able to stomach the moral compromises that would give him an escape route. It's one of the finest studies of loneliness I've ever read. In its evocation of a world where human beings might spend entire lifetimes without crossing their parish boundaries, and where affiliation to a group could spell the difference between life and death, this haunting story combines the strangeness of a science-fiction scenario with an historical narrative that still resonates today.
What to say about Jim Crace's writing? Although he has achieved some recognition in the world of literary prizes and awards, he somehow manages to stay under the radar. Perhaps it's because his writing is quiet. He does not go for the controversial or the flamboyant flourish. Yet his writing remains modest and yet all the better for it.
Harvest follows the week in the life of a small un-named English community. We are not told where it is or when the events described happened. And don you know what? It doesn;t matter. It was 'once upon a time.' The novel opens the morning after the barley has all been gathered. Smoke hangs in the air. Something is wrong. This sense of disquiet deepens as a village lynch mob attack a group of three innocent strangers. The search for a woman among the strangers becomes a witch-hunt. Walter Thirsk, the novel's narrator and himself an erstwhile outsider in the community, is aware of the deeply disturbing currents of a changing society and the evil comes from within not out.
We twentieth-century western dwellers are confused about the past. We see it through rose-tinted lenses, according to our own lives. 'Things were uncomplicated,' we say. 'People knew their place, the agricultural life mirrored the seasons. Times were hard but everything was in balance.' Harvest-time conjures up bucolic jollity, companionship, a full barn, rosy-cheeks and a well-ordered world. But we can only look back because of the benefits modern life has brought us. But mostly life is what it is. We do not learn from the past and nothing changes. Humans havealways been suspicious of the new and the different. We are cruel; fear makes us as dangerous as a beast cornered. In Crace's community, sheep-farming is to replace the arable and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The people are ignorant, sensitive only to their own fearful ignorance. When the new landlord introduces sheep, he also intends to build a church where none has stood before, For the good of the people, the flock?
Written in a deceptively simple style, Crace lays down layer upon layer of timeless disquietude. There is no such thing as history. It is always a construction of our own myths and ignorance. Crace's novels need to be read slowly: absorbed, savoured and considered. Peel away the layers of text and you will find symbolism and eternal myth.
No-one writes like Jim Crace. I have heard this may be his last published novel but to me, this author is eternal. I can read him again and again.
on 23 March 2016
As many have commented already, the author has deliberately left the precise temporal and geographical setting of this novel unspecified, leaving the reader with the rather enjoyable puzzle of piecing together when and where the story takes place. From the clues that Crace feeds us, I would hazard to say that it is set during the Jacobean period somewhere on the English chalklands (although it could feasibly be a decade either side of this span). The language is richly bucolic and satisfying, and the plot device he employs is effective in bringing to life the historically important, although frequently forgotten, phenomenon of the enclosure of the commons. That said, for all of its country conceits, it seemed plain to me that Crace is no countryman, for who else but a townsman would think that elderberries and sloes were edible? Nobody who has bitten into a sloe would surely care to repeat the mistake. As for the English punishing witchcraft with burning, I'm afraid that that is a sloppy error, for although commonly believed to have been such a punishment (which it was in Scotland and in other European countries), it was not in England, the English preferring to hang their witches, reserving burning for heretics.
on 3 March 2014
When the Booker short-list was announced I decided that there were two titles that were for me. I loved 'The Testament of Mary' (and have reviewed it) and I also chose Jim Crace's 'Harvest'. There is no doubt that Crace writes well. He has a poet's ear for the sound of language and his descriptions of scenes, feelings and the things that engage and motivate people are impressive. I imagine these are the things that actually got him short-listed. However, that said and acknowledged, I found the overall book unsatisfying. It has little pace, no context and the significant events that affect the narrative and move it forwards all feel contrived by the author, rather than natural and inevitable.
The story takes place over one single week and involves a completely (almost mythically) isolated community of people. The appearance of a few outsiders somehow destabilises the village and drives it into extinction. It is a tale of fear, superstition, control and in-breeding. It is like looking down a microscope at a drop of pond-water and watching the creatures swim for their lives.
I found myself seriously wondering whether it was actually science-fiction. That sounds ridiculous, but given that the requirement for science-fiction is the assumption of one 'impossible' idea, after which everything must follow naturally and normally, I feel that is the pattern of this book. The 'impossible idea' is that this community could ever be so completely isolated form the real world. No travellers pass through it, no-one in it has a concept of 'outside', no church has ever been built, no community buildings like shops, for example, exist within it. This is simply a space-ship full of isolated people travelling between the stars, devoid of context, with a closed community inside it, driving each other to extinction. I struggled to finish it.
Yes, Crace has a remarkable ear, but does he have a credible story to tell? I think not.
on 22 July 2014
I was given the task of presenting this to my Book Group and am I glad!. Read Quarantine with great interest but fell by the wayside with 'Being Dead' so was quite anxious about 'Harvest'. All the action takes place in 7 days in an unnamed village at some uncertain point in time.Told in the first person by a man who even after 12 years is still an outsider ,'Harvest' chronicles the disintegration of a way of life that had been unchanged for generations. A new Lord of the Manor and the Act of Enclosure together combine with unwelcome visitors to bring chaos to the well ordered and traditional life of the village. The story is wonderfully spun and even at the simplest level quite absorbing. However being a story by Jim Crace it is only right to look for allegories about the human condition and these may be suggested or dismissed. Is it coincidence that man manages to destroy his world in 7 days? Who are the strangers whose arrival is a catalyst for the unfolding events? Is this a battle of power over the powerless.? Etc. However the one predominant aspect of the book is the fantastic writing Crace has given us. His evocations of the countryside and all the wonderful descriptions of nature are just sublime. This is as near to poetry as prose may get. It is quite gorgeous. Sadly Crace has indicated that this will be his last novel. I do hope this means that he is not laying down his pen but turning his mind to other forms of writing. We need to keep hearing his music.
on 9 October 2013
I was astounded by how simple and yet how marvellous this novel was. It was the story of Walter Thirsk, a labourer in a village at the time of Harvest. Strangers appear and with them a whole chain of events starts, which ends in a change for everyone, not least the protagonist.
And yet it seems that there are no specific, particular events which happen. Rather, it is organic, each day merging with the one before and the one after even if each day brings us a step further towards the end. One sees the colours and feels the atmosphere of the harvest, of the rain. I was completely caught up in the story, reading for hours at a time, pulled forward by the magnificent writing.