Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Reading Notes: Harvest

This review constitutes part of my commitment to read and review as many of the 13 Man Booker longlisted titles as possible before the announcement of the shortlist on 10 September. Harvest is the third book in the list I have read.

"Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground."

Jim Crace's Harvest opens with a quotation from one of the first poets I was introduced to as a very young child, and have always found rather interesting - 18th century satirist and classicist, Alexander Pope. Crace's choice of the opening stanza from Pope's famous On Solitude as his entree into this story is a clear gesture towards not just the ostensible historical themes of this book (the devastating effect of pastoral enclosure on rural communities, and the coming of the industrial revolution) but also the deeper - and more modern, or perhaps just timeless - questions Crace asks about belonging, dispossession, fear, class, justice and identity.

In many ways, this is a deceptively simple story. It can be read at face value as a rather grim, if nonetheless elegant and engaging, tale of an agricultural community in the throes of change, and the brutalities of class and ownership on common living. Crace, through his protagonist and narrator Walter Thirsk, doesn't romanticise village living necessarily, although there is no doubt that Thirsk, himself an outsider, uses a soft lens in detailing the villagers' insularity, fear and hatred of strangers, and ultimate venality. It would be possible, shading aside, to read and enjoy this book as a straightforward uber-historical narrative of The Evils of Enclosure, or Why Rural Life is More Betterer Than Urban Life, the End.

However, the complications of the plot and of Thirsk's view don't really allow for this to be the whole meat of this tale. Crace makes several narrative decisions that point pretty clearly to the fact that he is not attempting to write a historical novel per se, but rather a historicised allegory, a political and ethical tract really, which has a lot to say to the burning issues of the early 21st century.

How does he achieve this? His village is never located in time and space - he is deliberately and manifestly non specific and avoids giving any clues that would allow it to be dropped back into its rightful box. The strangers whose arrival signals the beginning of all the trouble are described - intensely, in frantic detail almost - but never really humanised; with one limited exception near the end, none of them speak directly, and they serve as emblems for the villagers, loci for fears, desires, hopes and frustrations. The villagers themselves, while beautifully realised, also move in a symbolic dance, in which they each stand for something (this is especially true of the Widow Grosse and the child Lizzie). The visiting surveyor with the disabilities is also, and even more obviously, a symbol, although his representational value shifts over the course of the story.

Most of all, the clash of world views between the old Master and the new, and the devastation the new Master brings in his wake, is pure Precept Theatre 101 to my reading. Crace could hardly be more clear - power is dangerous, corrupt (or corruptible) and ultimately completely self-centred. People who are afraid transfer that fear to strangers or Others of multiple kinds, as if rejection of the Other can somehow stabilise their shifting world and set it back on its axis. Rejection of refugees, says Crace, is almost always primarily about fear - fear of loss, fear of change, fear of limitation, fear of difference, fear of consequences.

I also think Crace is making another important point in this haunting book - that people are depressingly prone to turn their anger in the wrong directions, kicking down instead of up, and that this all serves merely to consolidate the structures of power while hurting those least able to protect themselves. It might be just my reading again, but I detected an urgent thread of WAKE UP in this book. Crace is using a putatively historical story to make cogent points about the state of the world in 2013, and I think he achieves his aim admirably.

Overall, this was another brilliant book, well worth its spot on the longlist, and a definite re-reader for me. I'd recommend it, and recommend taking your time over it - it's not a hard read, it's very gripping actually, but giving it time to unfold will increase the value of it.

I have read two other longlist titles, but will definitely not review them before the shortlist is announced tonight.  So I only got to 5 out of 13 ... Oh well. I will pick up this challenge with the shortlist and aim to read any I haven't read before the prize announcement.


  1. I downloaded this one to take away with me while I'm away at the conference. (Also 'Sea Hearts' - looking forward to both.)

  2. Oh very good! I look forward to your thoughts on both :-)