Harvest, by Jim Crace

>> Tuesday, August 13, 2013

TITLE: Harvest
AUTHOR: Jim Crace

PAGES: 320

SETTING: Historical
TYPE: Fiction

On the morning after harvest, the inhabitants of a remote English village awaken looking forward to a hard-earned day of rest and feasting at their landowner's table. But the sky is marred by two conspicuous columns of smoke, replacing pleasurable anticipation with alarm and suspicion.

One smoke column is the result of an overnight fire that has damaged the master's outbuildings. The second column rises from the wooded edge of the village, sent up by newcomers to announce their presence. In the minds of the wary villagers a mere coincidence of events appears to be unlikely, with violent confrontation looming as the unavoidable outcome. Meanwhile, another newcomer has recently been spotted taking careful notes and making drawings of the land. It is his presence more than any other that will threaten the village's entire way of life.
It all starts at the time of the harvest in a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere. Smoke is coming from the two ends of the village. One is from Master Kent's dovecote, clear arson. The other is from a group of newly arrived strangers, clearly hoping to take advantage of squatters' rights which say that they're allowed to stay if they put up a house and light a fire. And just like that, the balance of the village starts to collapse.

I got really excited when I started reading this. The first half is amazing. It's an exploration of a really close-minded, insular community and what happens when the outside world comes calling, after years of isolation.

There's the strangers, and the villagers' treatment of them was truly stomach-churning. This wasn't because it was particularly brutal, or mean-spirited, exactly the opposite. It was because it was so easily justified by our narrator, Walt, a relative newcomer himself, who keeps reassuring himself that it's completely understandable that his neighbours would unfairly blame the strangers instead of one of their own -who wouldn't? And aren't the strangers getting off easily, given what might have happened in other places? Topical, much? Walter rings absolutely true as the established immigrant who, although his instincts are to want to help newcomers like him, feels the need to align himself with the community he's chosen to become part of, however unfair and even cruel they're being.

But it's not just the strangers, the outside world is coming in a more structural way. The forces of change in the outside world are reaching the tiny village. The master who cared about and for the villagers, who was perfectly content to leave them to their communal way, and to see himself as merely a steward of the land, there to serve it and the people who'd worked it for centuries, has been replaced by someone who sees the land he owns as a way to make a profit.

And this brings us to the second half, which is when I felt the book started to disintegrate. Whereas the first half was about the villagers, and was something I'd never read before, the second was all about the landowner and his henchmen doing evil things. It did show how the villagers, so powerful at the start, when it came to receiving or not the strangers, are completely powerless to the forces of the outside world, easy victims to lack of reason and senseless cruelty. It was still a bit disappointing. I thought the rest of the book was going to be about the gradual decay that would be produced by enclosure, and its effect on the community, but no, it was something I've read 1000 times before.

The writing also changes then. I really loved it at the beginning. It was lyrical and beautiful, but at the same time, it felt right coming from the mouth of the narrator, even though he's only slightly more educated than the illiterate villagers. That's because it's not high-falutin poetic, but earthy poetic, of the characters' world. But as the end approaches, it all becomes dreamy and vague, and neither the language or the action have the punch and impact that they did at the start.

I'm very glad I read it, but I wish it'd ended on as high a note as it started.



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