Review: Harvest, By Jim Crace

This crackling hearth and home novel, with its evocation of country life, shows a writer at his peak

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 15 February 2013 20:00
Deep England: Bucolic life in the Cotswolds
Deep England: Bucolic life in the Cotswolds

Inimitably excellent, Jim Crace stands on his own ground among living English novelists. Immune to trends, guided by his own singular star, he has sown and grown an 11-volume shelf of finely crafted, intensely atmospheric books. Each novel fashions a unique climate, landscape and mood, a far cry from everyday realism though nothing to do with soppy or silly "fantasy". Yet each bears its maker's unmistakable brand. Although critics hunt far and wide for comparisons, from Calvino to Marquez, Crace is surely the nearest talent to William Golding that our literature can boast today.

After the mesmeric alternative – but intimately knowable – worlds of novels such Quarantine, Six and The Pesthouse, All That Follows (2010) blended elements of Crace's recurring dystopian anxiety with – for him – an unusual swerve into suburban domesticity.

In a sense, Harvest repeats the figure of a well-focused hearth-and-home routine seen against a background glare and crackle of terrifying change. Here, though, we return to one of Crace's terrains of fable, as clear and strange as a dream – or a nightmare. Sometime in the pre-industrial period, an isolated and self-sufficient English village finds its common fields stolen for enclosure as collective agriculture yields to remotely-owned pasturage: "the sheaf is giving way to sheep". Rich interlopers conspire to ruin a traditional, seasonal – and largely egalitarian – way of life in the name of "Profit, Progress, Enterprise".

Our first-person guide, widowed Walter Thirsk, arrived here as a stranger a dozen years ago. Now he recounts how, over a catastrophic harvest week, other incomers – first a vagrant family uprooted by enclosure from their homes, then a gaggle of sinister gentlemen and strong-arm enforcers – sound a death-knell for the old, collective virtues. They menace "a slow-paced commonwealth of habit, custom and routine". Master Kent, the easy-going, paternal lord of this land, in fact holds no true title to it. His cousin Jordan, rational economist and would-be sheep baron, plots by degrees of force and fraud the coup that will secure his power and "throw a halter round our lives".

As for Crace's language, it would be otiose with this writer to note its blazing clarity of vision, its passionate microscopic observation and the untiring swing and spring of its rhythm. One could set whole paragraphs as almost-regular iambic verse. This may sound affected, but Crace's excavations of English pastoral mode involve its prose –and poetry – as much as its beasts, its tackle and its tools.

No writer can match him for pin-sharp specificity in his rapt close-ups of rural life, from the nocturnal scents of the village ("The bread-and-biscuit smell of rotting wood. The piss-and-honey tang of apple trees") to the rank midden of lowland "Turd and Turf" which serves as boneyard and latrine. Yet the village's unanchored quality matters hugely – even though the visiting map-maker "Mr Quill" seeks to sketch and shape it into a place ripe for reason, and for business.

Where are we, and when? Details of clothes, crops and rituals leave a centuries-wide window. But for all its timeless, folk-tale qualities, this village has a solid location. From Tudors to Victorians, land enclosure in England enacted, county-by-county and field-by-field, the "tragedy of the commons", as private interests claimed control of resources once responsibly shared by all.

In England's case, the sheep ate up the men – Thomas More's words in Utopia (1516). So Harvest takes place nowhere, and everywhere. Around the world, this kind of appropriation still happens in many different accents. Crace's incandescent visit to a near-mythical Deep England – in a style quite as hallucinatory as the effects of the "fairy-caps" his characters munch – results in a story both topical, and global. No recent English novel has deeper roots, yet casts so broad a shade.

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