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Thursday, 19 September 2013

Harvest by Jim Crace


Continuing with the theme of Booker longlisted (now shortlisted) novels, I turned my attention to the bookies’ favourite: Harvest, by Jim Crace. Crace is a well established and widely lauded writer whom many think is overdue a Booker win (I might say the same about David Mitchell), but as the prize is awarded on the strength of the individual novel, does Harvest stand its ground or is its status as favourite largely influenced by Crace’s track record? As a virgin reader of Crace, I hoped to find out.

Harvest is an historical novel set in a small agrarian village, at an unidentified point in history.  The story is told from the point of view of Walter Thirsk, a widower who is, to all intents, an outsider who married in albeit some time ago. Although Walter counts himself amongst the villagers it soon becomes apparent that he is not as integrated as he wishes himself to be.

There is duplicity from the beginning. A fire destroys the master’s dovecote and part of the stable. Although Walter, and the villagers, know the fire to have been caused by three local lads high on hallucinogenic mushrooms the blame falls on a group of outsiders who have the misfortune to stake their own claim to a place in the village on the same night as the fire. Of the newcomers, the two men are punished with a week in the stocks and the woman, for whom all the men immediately harbour longings, has her head shorn. The verdict is considered lenient, and yet the villagers all know its severity being cognisant, as they are, of the newcomers innocence.

This is the beginning of their unravelling. They bring in the harvest and celebrate in the usual way, but something is amiss. One of the prisoners dies in the stocks, the master’s horse, Willowjack, is brutally killed in the night. The woman is missing. The field is not to be ploughed; instead, Master Kent confides in Walter that the land is no longer his, that his brother in law is coming to convert the village to sheep-keeping. A scribe, nicknamed ‘Mr Quill’, is brought in to accurately measure the shape of the village and reshape it to its new image. Walter is an outsider again. In the space of only a few days the town, as he knew it, and all his friends have disappeared.

Harvest is a short, terse and well constructed novel, verging on the claustrophobic. Crace is definitely an excellent writer, producing a technically fine novel which draws you quickly into this strange, yet strangely familiar seeming world. At the same time, it left me totally cold. I could see its technical skill, the artistry in its construction, but for me something critical was missing. It stirred no emotion in me. Considering the violence and decay present in the novel, there was something terribly muted about it all. The alleged passion for the new woman was empty. The connection to the village, also empty. The acts of violence against the townswomen, including the woman Walter Thirsk was secretly sleeping with, were presented as though through an obscuring veil which robbed it of its power. If Crace was aiming to produce a novel with a deadened sense of emotion to it, he certainly succeeded.

Overall, Harvest is a good novel, I can understand how it has come to be in the Booker shortlist and Crace is undoubtedly a masterful writer. But in the end it left me with the same feeling as a well constructed technical document. It was well written, well done, but without feeling. It didn’t really work for me.

Harvest receives a conflicted 7 out of 10 Biis.