VINE VOICEon April 5, 2013
This book seemed right up my street. I enjoy historical fiction and here the story of a village facing sudden new threats - enclosure of the land, which threatens their whole way of life, the arrival of strangers, both poor and powerless and wealthy and powerful, and the whisper of witchery - sounds extremely promising. The writing is, at its best, plain, poetic and beautiful. It should have been great.
It actually starts very well - the writing is at its best here. It is easy to read. The historical world, the time period never clearly specified, is drawn in swift deft strokes. The life of the village seems real and concrete, from the banter of the harvesters to the harvest festivities that follow. Sadly, this is not kept up and flaws that are present right from the start become more obvious and troubling as the story progresses.
Part of the problem is the narrator and his voice. Walter Thirsk is an incomer to the village, who arrived with the new lord of the manor, Master Kent, but became a villager when he married a local. The idea is that this allows the author to play with concepts of belonging, of what being a villager means and of loyalties. It doesn't quite work because Walter Thirsk never fully emerges as a person. He had been Master Kent's 'man' apparently but roles or functions he performed for him are unclear. It gives the impression that this was never worked out and so an important part of Thirsk's life is undeveloped.
Also, Thirsk somehow manages to be absent during many of the most important events that take place. We get his secondhand account of events told to him by others for no obvious gain. These secondary characters never really take on any life of their own. None of them ever gain any depth or solidity.
More grating, for me, is the way that Crace constantly works in rural and agricultural similes, metaphors and conceits into Thirsk's way of talking. Of course people do use the things they are familiar with to express themselves, but the extent to which Thirsk refers to himself and fellow villagers in terms that recall the earth, the land, seeds germinating and animals grazing means that it begins to be a very obvious stylistic tick. The more he does it, the more it grates. English students might discuss at length the use of these symbols in essays but they just appear too heavy handed in their use for me.
Perhaps because of these problems, I found myself not fully engaging with the story. As a result, other issues begin to raise their head. The time period when this is set is kept deliberately vague. That, I suspect, is part of Crace's point. The way of life destroyed by enclosure was one that had endured for centuries. To some extent, it is a story that could be set at any point between and during the thirteenth and the seventeeth centuries. Early on we might well suspect the setting is in the medieval period. It comes as something of a shock when three quarters of the way through we discover references to puritans and pipe smoking and realise that this must be set in the seventeenth century. But this vagueness is a problem. Life was not utterly unchanging - even in rural England - during this period. Did the religious upheavals have no effect on life at all, even if they do lack any formal church? When vagabonds come to their village (escaping enclosure elsewhere) why does not the lord of the manor appear to be aware that vagrants should be put in the stocks for no other reason than being vagabonds? Why does no-one have a firearm if the setting is so late? The more we think about it, the less sense it makes.
There are some major plot problems too. I have no wish to spoil the book for those reading but when accusations of witchcraft are made the finger is finally pointed at a character who, one might think, would not be a scapegoat those in power would be so happy to see done away with. This is, of course, to ignore the problem that the reaction to such accusations appears to owe more to watching the film 'Witchfinder General' than the reality of how such allegations tended to be dealt with in England, where a ducking was more likely than a burning.
The ending makes little sense. It is as if even the author has lost interest in plausibly resolving the plot threads and simply wraps things up as quickly as possible.
A quote on the cover calls the writing 'hallucinatory'. That is a very apt description; 'dream-like' might also describe it. It is at times astonishing, clear and beautiful; it is also insubstantial, a gossamer thin artful confection that falls apart as you look at it.
I am sorry that it really did not work for me. Obviously, others have enjoyed this book much more than I did and I am in a minority of reviewers here. It may be that it will be more successful for you than. Personally, however, I cannot recommend this book.