A new novel by Jim Crace is always an event, for readers who appreciate his idiosyncratic choice of themes and styles. Harvest (2013) lives up to this reader’s expectations. As always, Crace rapidly establishes his new world – this time, a small and remote English village at the time when capitalism, in the form of agricultural ‘improvement’, was beginning to disrupt age-old forms of economic and social life.
His voice is that of Walter Thirsk, an outsider who has settled in the village and married one of its women (who has since died). This gives him a borderline status: he’s able to express and sympathise with the villagers’ way of life while understanding what is about to befall them – and what befalls them happens with bewildering speed, within just a few days. It also gives him an ambivalence: he hesitates between siding with the villagers and colluding with their lords, William Kent, the traditional and benevolent squire, and his aggressive cousin and new-model landowner, Edmund Jordan, who rides into the parish with his posse to claim his inheritance and execute his plan to replace the subsistence economy with sheep farming.
This manifestation of the ‘agricultural revolution’ is prefigured by another coming, signalled in the novel’s first sentence: three outsiders, two men and a woman, arrive overnight and by building a makeshift house attempt to establish their right to live in the parish. A confrontation with the villagers, from which Walter is characteristically absent, leads to the men being imprisoned in the stocks and the woman fleeing. A series of disturbing and unexplained events follow, including the burning of William Kent’s stables: this passage calls to mind Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon, which similarly combines dread and the inexplicable.
Another character, ‘My Quill’, stalks through the story. He is a surveyor, employed to plot the land of the parish in preparation for the coming improvements, and Walter comes to see a partnership with him as a personal way out of the small world he sees collapsing around him. In some way Crace’s avatar, ‘Mr Quill’ is no simple instrument of the new powers: he takes pity on the imprisoned strangers and finally comes to a violent and unexplained death in the great house.
As in his other books Crace makes no attempt in Walter’s narration to ape the language of the historical period, but develops a new and entirely convincing voice, which combines a heightened and often poetic contemporary style with words and idioms taken (or coined afresh) from the English rural past:
‘The harvest teamwork allows us to be lewd. Our humour ripens as the barley falls. It’s safe to spread the gossip noisily, it’s safe to bait and goad. Who’s sharing wives? Which bearded bachelor is far too friendly with his goat? Which widower (they look at me) has dipped his thumb in someone else’s pot? Which blushing youngsters are the village spares, taht’s to say those children who’ve been conceived in one man’s bed and then delivered in another? Who’s making love to apple tubs/ Who’s wedded to a sack of grain? Nothing is beyond our bounds, when we are cutting corn.’
At the end of the book the village is empty – all the people have fled in fear of persecution – and Walter himself prepares to leave the parish, an Adam forced to leave his paradise for sins too many and complex to unravel. It is said that Harvest will be Jim Crace’s last novel, and that Walter is here saying his farewell on behalf of his creator. If so, this is sad news: the contemporary novel will have lost one of its brightest and most distinctive lights.