Jim Crace’s latest occupies a similar space to his first novel, Continent, and his most recent successful novel, The Pesthouse (we’ll draw a polite veil over All That Follows), in that it occupies a sort of vague, possibly allegorical space – in which space is as much of a character as the characters themselves. Where Continent inhabited an imaginary realm, and The Pesthouse a mythical future America that harked curiously back to its past, Harvest unravels within an English rural village (we imagine in the past although taking a leaf from The Pesthouse it may be hundreds of years in the future). An outlier, Walter Thirsk, is our guide, an outlier despite his presence within the village some years, some people – Walter learns – never quite fitting in alongside families who can trace back their lineage for generations.
The novel opens the morning after a fire. Three local residents, the twins and Brooker Higgs, giddy on seps, burned down a dovecote belonging to Master Kent, the gentle overlord of the region – but rather than own up, a witch hunt is enacted that sees three strangers, two men armed with bows and a charismatic woman, camping on the edge of town blamed. All three have their heads shaved and the men have their hands bound, their heads placed in stocks in the centre of town. There are additional intrigues murmuring at the back of the post Harvest come-down however. Master Kent has a new man in town, looking, making notes, mapping. There are rumours of a newly discovered cousin, to whom Master Kent must bend a knee, who has plans to do away with crops in favour of sheep, to the chagrin of Thirsk and, Thirsk believes, of the townsfolk themselves when they hear of it.
We glimpse something of Thirsk’s history, his life as Master Kent’s man, his marriage, his widowhood, his taking up with a local woman. He tells us:
‘When I first came to these vicinities I thought I’d discovered not quite paradise, but at least a fruitful opportunity – some honest freedom and scope. Some fertile soil! I’d never known such giving land and sky.’
But Thirsk – whose surname is perverted by the locals who call him ‘Thirst’ – is never truly a part and once Master Kent’s horse is murdered it isn’t long before we find ourselves in New Salem, with talk of witches flying and witchcraft and violence. The golden haired cousin arrives with brutish sidemen who take the villagers by the scruff of the neck and sow ugly seeds. The shaven woman lingers on the outskirts of both the town and the novel, a shimmering oddity, a cruel revenger, who seems to draw a seething sexual violence out of the local men, who can be found wandering in the dark looking for her. Thirsk himself admits:
‘I see her sprouting head pushed and nuzzled like a turnip on the ground, a sweet and tiny dainty for the pigs. I see her spread out with the Chartmaker amongst the carcasses at Turd & Turf.’
What begins with fire ends with fire. There is – to coin a phrase – no redemption to be found here. A way of life is laid waste. The world turns and what was is no more. As with a number of Crace’s novels (and similar to Cormac McCarthy with whom Crace shares a kinship), time feels geologic and the actions of men and women piddling in the face of such enormity. People come and go, the novel seems to say; so? The writing is beautiful, strange, archaic words turned up like odd shaped vegetables in the dry earth. The characters are distant, viewed through Thirsk’s outlier eyes. The plotting is curious, given to divergences, as The Pesthouse was, but compelling and arresting all the same, a tale told by a snake with ulterior motives.
All told, Harvest represents yet one more reason to sing the praises of Crace, one of England’s greatest and most under-rated authors (Harvest has, to date, seemed to garner almost universally great reviews – another terrific novel from Crace, they seem to say, ho hum). When we interviewed Crace three or four years ago, he mentioned that his retirement was on the horizon. The acknowledgement of Harvest talks of the ‘fortunate career in publishing’ that Crace has enjoyed. (One can’t help but be reminded of the fanfare and hoohah that greeted Philip Roth’s recent announcement of his retirement; a similar hoohah should greet any news of Crace’s retirement – the man is a national treasure.) If Harvest does turn out to be Crace’s last novel, then he has ended his career on a high.
Any Cop?: The first great novel of 2013.