Harvest is an insular novel in many ways. I have never read something of the like before, though the general consensus seems to be that Crace’s work often covers similar ground – loss of a way of life, a transition from one age into another. This is one such novel. It centres around one village, unnamed and unmapped at any point in the story. We assume it to be somewhere in rural England around the 17th Century but the time period is also negligible. The narrative revolves around the enforced change of England’s agrarian fields to those used for livestock farming, here signalled by the arrival of the rightful lord of their manor house, Master Jordan. Our protagonist is Walter Thirsk, a man both within and without; he speaks with the collective ‘we’ and ‘us’ when we first encounter him, but it soon becomes clear that twelve years amongst these villagers is not enough to stop him being an outsider to them – an ‘other’.
In fact the story opens with a much more obvious ‘other’ entering the bounds of the district. Two men and one woman arrive in the woods, set up camp and are wrongly accused of setting a fire at the manor house. What follows is a breach of the peace and solitude of this isolated place as various intruders begin to filter into its borders; none of them trusted, not all of them guilty. The two male companions are hung up in the stocks with grim consequences, while the woman is left to fend for herself. She is much desired by the men of the town according to Walter, though this desire denotes a longing for the ‘other’ more than anything – her raven black hair the contrast of the flaxen golden waves of the villagers. Walter’s fear that she will be sexually abused out in the wilderness by one of these salivating males is a manifestation of their desire to control and harm anything different from their norm. Walter need not concern himself, as the Madam Beldam seems to be a pretty tyrannical and vengeful sort of being, especially compared to the ineffectuality of most of the males within the text.
The seems is important. A vital quality about Walter is that the poor man never seems to be around when any of the crucial or violent episodes that populate the book actually occur. He is mostly left to report third-hand to us what he has heard from other characters. Not only is his an unreliable narration, it is an uneventful one. The way of life he loves is slowly being lost but Walter does little to counter this. He seems distraught, but little tempts him into action.
Crace is attempting here to make us mourn for a way of life lost, as much an allegory for the world we know currently slipping away from us as a eulogy to the agricultural way of life. This is an aspect I struggled with, as these judgemental villagers had little to endear me to them. As a rule they were not fleshed out with character details, making them appear as one blonde seething mass of lies and fear of the outside world. I hate the loss of the green belt as much as the next slightly left-wing woman, but these people genuinely needed some kind of reality check. Maybe it would do them good to see the market town, even if it was three days walk away. Just talk to some new people, buy a ribbon or the newest plough or whatever these rural types enjoy. Prejudice and intolerance are never attractive traits in characters and so empathy with the loss of their rural way of life was hard to conjure.
The language is stylised and at times beautiful. Crace comes up with images that I had never read or imagined before, always an achievement in a world populated by such a stunning array of books and language. The world he creates is both one we can see in the past and yet has no connection to us. There is no religion, no education, no politics to tie us to the world outside The Village. This makes the intense sense of place even more impressive, conveying a world we can sense and yet hardly know. It also means Harvest never exists outside of itself, just as Walter seems to cease outside the bounds of the village.
Despite this admiration for the novel, having completed my Booker Challenge, I have to contend Harvest as my least favourite of these six esteemed novels. I don’t know quite why – maybe it is the intense sense of place that has no anchor; maybe the lack of human sympathy within its pages; maybe the fact I just can’t get on board with ploughing as an act of rebellion. Whatever the reason, these are all extraordinary books and to label one as my least favourite is barely a criticism.