Jim Craces Booker-shortlisted novel is a timeless tale of crime and retribution and the changes wrought by displacement.
Author: Jim Crace
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Crusty Jim Crace,who threw up his hands not long ago and swore never to write another novel,has written another novel. Harvest,shortlisted for the Booker this year,seems all blood and sinews at first,a raw act of imagination. But its a powerfully crafted piece of work,beaten into shape and then polished. Historical novel,morality tale,fabulist fiction,Harvest changes on you,depending on how it catches the light.
Two coils of smoke set the story in motion. One belongs to a fire lit by strangers who have set up camp at the edge of a village common. The other comes from the manor house,where someone has set the dovecote alight. Between the two fires,the village takes shape. It is unnamed and undated,although we will come to know its fields,hedges and tenements well. It is home to a small agricultural community,which tills the common land and shares the produce. In the week that follows the fires,both land and community will be violently destroyed.
The story is told by Walter Thirsk,who arrived at the village 12 years earlier with Master Kent,the easygoing landlord who lives at the manor house. Thirsk watches as the strangers are brutally punished for a crime they did not commit. Things unravel further when a chartmaker arrives to map out the village and a distant relation sweeps in to usurp Master Kents claim on the land. The fens and fields of barley will be turned into pastures for sheep,rustic languor will be replaced by progress and industry.
Readers might place the story in an England going through the throes of enclosure. Though land had been enclosed for centuries,the process quickened between the mid-18th and the early-19th centuries,when the enclosure acts were passed. By these acts of parliament,land was appropriated by the state,villagers lost their rights to common grounds. And so the village commons,and the life that had grown around them,passed into memory. The poets of that age would write about that life with great longing. Crace seems to be answering them in his novel.
Harvest appears to go back to that time,before the English countryside was divided into great estates and neatly fenced pastures,before its most remote reaches were mapped and named. It returns to the idea of the true,the deep country that existed far from church or bailiff,verging on wilderness. Yet Craces village is not the Sweet Auburn of Oliver Goldsmiths memory. Here are Thomas Greys rude forefathers brought to life,except they are not the simple,high-minded cottagers of Greys poem. These villagers are suspicious and quick to violence when their commons are threatened. Crace mourns a way of life,but he dwells more on the savage rupture that takes place when the relationship between land and people is renegotiated.
The critic Raymond Williams has observed that the idea of enclosure,especially enclosure that took place around the time when the Industrial Revolution was beginning,moves out of real history to become part of a powerful myth of modern England. In this myth,the transition from a rural to an industrial society is imaged as a fall. And as in so many of his novels,Crace reaches past real history into the mythic moment behind it. The village is an Edenic place,where innocence is destroyed with the advent of outsiders. Hung with flowers,its pillories were used for prayer rather than imprisonment. So the brutal,unjust punishment of the strangers has the ring of Cain and Abel to it.
At the heart of the novel,then,lies a biblical tale of crime and retribution. The villagers must pay for the treatment they have meted out to the strangers and Vengeance comes in the form of Profit,Progress,Enterprise. The story acquires shades of a morality play when Walter Thirsk identifies a pageant of departing travellers as Privilege,Suffering,the Guilty and Innocent,Malice,Despair.
The tragedy of Craces village ripples outwards into the modern world. When the ancient,natural rhythms are broken there will be cataclysmic consequences,it seems to warn. The sentences of the novel have the quality of an incantation. Crace,prophet of destruction,seems to be warding it off with a spell of words.