agricultural revolution, enclosure, Everyman, farming, fifteenth century, historical fiction, Jim Crace, Joan Thirsk, modern age, sixteenth century, social order, villagers
Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace
Doubleday, 2013. 208 pp. $25
The day after harvest, two ominous fires darken the sky above a remote English village. One has damaged the outbuildings at the manor house and killed the master’s doves. The other comes from a hut built overnight just outside the village, an act of settlement that customarily grants the visitors the right to stay a week. What starts as a sober, calm inquest into the master’s loss and curiosity about the newcomers sparks into something else: another, broader conflagration that consumes reason, traditional ties, fellow feeling, common decency, and respect for life.
Such is the elegantly simple premise of Jim Crace’s masterful Harvest, whose sole adornment is a prose that feels neither old nor modern:
The countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you. It wants to dish out scars and bruises. It wants to give you roughened palms and gritty eyes. It likes to snag and tear your arms and legs on briars and on brambles every time you presume to leave the path. But this was precisely what I liked most about this village life, the way we had to press our cheeks and chests against a living, fickle world. . . .
The narrator is Walter Thirsk, born outside the Village (its only name) and married into it a dozen years before. He’s thoughtful, perceptive, hard-working, loves the land, worships the memory of his late wife, and has a keen sense of right and wrong. His great flaw, however, is that he often talks himself out of following his moral instincts, preferring to keep silent and hope for the best–like most people, in other words.
It’s not just the two fires and their aftermath that concern Walter, who, by chance and his nimble mind, soon has information that his neighbors don’t know yet. His privilege comes largely through his relationship with a stranger who comes at the master’s behest. The newcomer’s features, clothes, and beard look nothing like the villagers’, and his limp and physical frailty arouse scorn, to say nothing of his profession. He’s a mapmaker, and he’s come to render the fields and boundaries of the Village on paper.
Why he’d do that puzzles the villagers, who look on uneasily, and for once, they’re right to be suspicious. However, Mr. Quill, as Walter dubs the mapmaker before he learns his real name, is only the messenger of the new order, and the only character who risks speaking his mind at the injustice he’s quick to perceive.
Harvest unfolds in small movements, tiny but significant actions to which the villagers have no ready response. Crace leaves the time period unspecified, though details of dress and weaponry suggest the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. But that doesn’t matter. He’s more interested in the timeless theme of how people face a coming revolution in the way they live.
The name he’s chosen for his Everyman is also evocative. Joan Thirsk was a highly respected, influential historian of rural England, and she died in 2013, the year Harvest was published. Crace has inhaled the history and breathed life into one of the finest novels I’ve read in years.
The British press reports that he says it will be his last. Say it ain’t so, Mr. Crace.
Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.