I confess this review is now months overdue and so I have lost the sense of what was so good about the book so this is likely to be thoroughly inadequate. 'Harvest' by Jim Crace was sent to me by mum, having been highly recommended by a friend. I was disconcerted at being unable to place the time setting for the story; at some moments it feels almost modern, but at others back in the dark ages. A small community, bringing in their annual harvest, has their celebrations interrupted by a fire and a group of interlopers, who are duly blamed for the conflagration. From there events spiral rapidly out of control, although unbeknownst to the villagers the recently widowed Master Kent, the owner of their lands, is about to be usurped by another family member with very different plans for the village and its people.
Our narrator Walter has in common with Master Kent the status of newcomer; they arrived together, Kent as husband to the owner's daughter and Walter his manservant. Though now part of the community there is an element of the begrudging about their acceptance, a continued wariness and suspicion. The story has a strong sense of their community, but I felt as I read that it was based on their dependence on each other. They are people who have shared their lives, through bounteous years and lean ones, with their family bonds creating as much division as cohesion. Walter befriends the man who comes to survey the village lands and finds himself at odds with the other villagers. Master Jordan arrives from city, with his thuggish entourage, then Master Kent's horse is killed and people begin to question the proposed changes to their lives. Blame is allotted to those unable to defend themselves, accusations of witchcraft are soon bandied around, an easy tool for controlling a superstitious populace, and before our very eyes the community crumbles and disintegrates with frightening rapidity. A disturbing tale, with parable like qualities; it has such close parallels in modern life, where so many decisions about peoples lives are taken by remote corporations or centralised governments.
Here the atmosphere at the beginning of the tale, where the land, the seasons and the harvest are what dominate their existence:
"What wind there was yesterday after we dispatched the final sheaf gathered up and spread much of the lighter, finer chaff. The village has been freckled by the chaff. The service trees between our dwellings and the gleaning field are still embroidered with it and with straw, despite the rain. On the way between the harvest and the stackyard, unsecured bundles of cut barley have dropped on the verges from our wagons and our barrows, providing pickings for the ruddocks and the dunnocks to contest, and there are signs in the disrupted soil that someone's pigs are on the loose and have been snouting for fallen grain. There is a silent ripeness to the air, so mellow and sappy that we want to breath it shallowly, to sip it richly like a cordial. No one who knows the busy, kindly, scented universe of crops and the unerring traces of its calendar could mistake this morning's aromatic peace and quiet for anything but Gleaning Day." (p.60-61)
And as Walter watches the departure of Master Kent and the prisoners. He manages to sum up the devastation of what has been lost:
"The lane is empty once again. This hilltop is a friendless place, and capped in cloud. I've bought the end-of-summer sorrows on myself. They spread their great black wings and cast their peckish shadows over me. The sun's still shining in the valley but its warmth's no longer reaching me. It is the middle of the afternoon, late harvest-time. I should be as dry and ripe as barley corn. Instead, I feel as chilly as a worm. I feel no prouder than a worm. I am almost tempted to run down the hill to that now empty way and join the pageant as it heads off for town. I'm panicking, not only for myself, but also for the prisoners, and the departed villagers, every one, and for Mr Quill as well. I have to fight the nightmares. I can't imagine living here for the coming seasons without someone to love or like, or any neighbour to share my troubles with. I can imagine living there, where they will be, above those smelling, busy, crowd-warmed streets, with Kitty, Gosse as my hands-on-belly second wife. I can imagine bringing Lizzie Carr into our rooms and taking care of her. I'd be as loving as her uncle John, until the day that uncle John himself arrives. I can imagine being Master Kent's town man again, like in those lively days when he was still a bachelor. The prospect is not frightening. It wouldn't take me long to catch up with that mummers' show. I could tag on at the end and follow Despair and his dejected mount as ... Shame, perhaps. As Servitude. I'd put up with their switches and their staves, so long as I could be with them and not beset by clouds." (p.202-3)