British writers could argue that they don’t have access to the scope of landscape available to their counterparts in other countries. American writers such as Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, and Wells Tower often use the landscape as a sort of character, a key component of the text that drives their narratives and works as much more than just a passive part of their fiction. The same can be said of many writers working in Australia and Africa. But not so much in the UK.
Perhaps the most striking element of Melissa Harrison’s second novel, then, is the way the landscape looms heavy and sets the tense tone that exists on every page. From the very start, the village of Lodeshill is central to the action. Much of what happens here wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the isolated woods, the narrow winding roads, the unused mineshafts filled in and covered over with farmland. It’s the landscape that gives the characters here a community, and the landscape that plays a part in driving the novel to its devastating conclusion.
It could be said that the landscape is actually more important to this slow-burning work than the plot is. It’s certainly true that the characters are. Because in many ways, At Hawthorn Time is a novel in which very little happens. Undoubtedly, that could be read as a criticism. But it isn’t meant as one. This is a rare occasion when a pared down plot works, leaving room for wonderful writing and a cast of characters that drag you all the way to the end.
At the centre of that cast is Jack, a homeless wanderer who would fit wonderfully in the work of any of those writers mentioned above. While we meet the village’s inhabitants – couples in the last throes, former farmers, teenagers starting to find their way in the world – it is their reactions to this wandering man that causes much of the novel’s intrigue. And it is Jack’s past and his place in a new world that sum up the theme of the whole work. It is also fitting that Jack will be a key component when plot does take over in the final third.
Harrison has also done something very clever to make sure that a novel with little plot still has the hook to keep the reader guessing. Prologues and epilogues are often questionable things. Why aren’t they just another chapter? But here, Harrison uses the epilogue to present the novel’s key incident in one of the novel’s key voices – and then she leaves us to spend almost 300 pages trying to piece them together.
Any Cop?: Harrison’s first novel, Clay, won many plaudits. It was a pared back piece itself, but nothing like this one. At Hawthorn Time may not be plotted in the same way as its predecessor, but the writing and the emotion have moved forward. This is a novel that explores the people in it with sympathy, empathy, and interest. It makes landscape, love, loss, and longing equally important – and all play a part in a truly gripping climax. With a new novel as good if not better than her first, Harrison cements her place as one of Britain’s most exciting talents.