Sunday, 16 February 2014

HARVEST by Jim Crace: to be discussed! by Sue Purkiss

Harvest, which I've just finished reading, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year. So it's well-regarded, a serious contender. The prose is beautiful - here are the first few lines:

'Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light, or they at least surprise those of us who've not been up to mischief in the dark. Our land is topped and tailed with flames.'

There's something about the rhythm and order of the words that tells us that this story is set in the past - or at least is not contemporary. 'First light' gives the same clue - it's easily recognisable, but not a common term for dawn: a little more formal than we are used to, perhaps a little biblical. The second sentence shows a delight in the sound of language, picking up on the alliteration which began the first. 'Our land' tells us that we are in a different, rural world, where there is a close relationship between tiller and tilled.

The content is significant too - for these two separate plumes of smoke set in train the disastrous sequence of events which leads to the destruction of the village at the centre of the narrative. At least, they're the triggers. The driver is really the process of enclosing land by the landowners and running sheep on it, which destroys the centuries-old way of life of the villagers.

One plume is from a fire lit by three newcomers. The second is from a fire which takes hold in the master's stable. The narrator, Walter Thirsk, is fairly certain that this second fire was accidentally started by two drunken villagers - but it's convenient to blame the newcomers. The two men are put in the stocks. The woman, daughter to one and wife to the other, becomes an object of fascination and lust to many of the men in the village, but she is enraged and her eventual revenge - her father dies in the stocks - is terrible. But there are others at fault too, chiefly the master's cousin, who actually has legal title to the land and cares only that it should make a profit. There are no heroes in this book. Walter is well-intentioned, but he dithers, and takes too long to do the right thing. The master cares for his people, but he's too weak to save them.

The author and his book.

It's a powerful book. It's not very comfortable, but I think it will stay in my mind for quite a while. I like that it's about ordinary, very fallible people, but I don't like that its message seems to be that, in the end, we're all weak, and so if we lose the world we have, it's probably our own fault. I like the way it's written - the prose - but I want the narrative to have more momentum, and I want to care more about the characters.

I suspect that Jim Crace would not call his novel historical fiction, and that interests me too. I can't quite put my finger on what makes it different from historical fiction - if, indeed, anything does. I'd like to hear what others think - has anyone read it?

Sue Purkiss

5 comments:

Pippa Goodhart said...

'I want to care more about the characters'; that was exactly my feeling too. As you say, an intriguing story and wonderfully written, but ultimately a bit soulless. Would it be unfair to say that it read very much as a novel written by a male author?

Sue Purkiss said...

I haven't read any of his other books, but I was interested to note that he's said this will be his last novel. Does that have a bearing, I wonder? Is he just tired of all that emotion and feeling? I don't know.

gaskella said...

I loved this book, and really wanted it to win the Booker - ah well. I found his prose to be so hypnotic and laden with summer heat.

Given that Crace said it would be his last novel, I did think it worked as an allegory too about the challenges for farming today with all the talk of the enclosures.

GSGreatEscaper said...

When I hear 'first light' I think not of the Bible but of Julius Caesar - 'prima luce,' the wonderful ablative absolute that told us when the soldiers attacked or set out on excursions that would bring fire and sword to the remotest corners of Gaul. Perhaps he means by this to compare the enclosures to the Roman invasion?

The title, though, certainly brings a Biblical thought to mind - as you reap, so shall you sow.....

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, Gaskella and Great Escaper. I don't quite see how it works as an allegory for farming today, though - perhaps you could explain? I like the thought about the title. It seems quite obvious when you mention it, but I hadn't thought of it!