Harvesting review: Lifting the lid on sex trafficking in Ireland
Actor Lisa Harding’s debut novel is character-driven and highly dramatic
In Harvesting, both girls have their identities stripped from them, have no control over their bodies and are pumped with drugs before being sent out each evening. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA Wire
The multiple meanings of the title of Lisa Harding’s debut novel are a fitting metaphor for her story about the sex trafficking of young women. Harvesting may refer to the gathering and storing of produce, the killing of animals for human consumption or to control a population, and most recently, the removal of cells or organs from a person or animal for the purposes of experiment.
For Nicoleta Zanesti, a 12-year-old Moldovan girl, the word also represents a prison term. Late in the novel Nico reflects that she has spent only one harvest in Dublin, over which time she has been subjected to incarceration, beatings, drugging, sexual abuse and multiple rapes. Sold into sex slavery by her villainous papa, literally a man who drowns puppies, Nico endures a horrendous journey across Europe, where she and a number of other terrified young women are transported like animals before being put to work to “earn back” their passage.
Harding is to be commended for writing about such an important and under-reported topic. The Dublin actor was inspired by her involvement in 2012 with a campaign against sex trafficking run by the Children’s Rights Alliance. Asked to read the real-life accounts of young female victims, Harding found herself haunted by their voices.
Voice is one of the strengths of her debut, a character-driven and highly dramatic novel that tells in alternating chapters the stories of two girls. Contrasting with Nico’s defencelessness is the story of her “roomie”, Sammy, a 15-year-old Dubliner on the run from an abusive mother and a father who has a PhD in brushing things under the carpet. Aside from Nico’s brother Luca, there are two types of male characters in Harvesting: those who commit atrocities against women and those who permit them.
Knees that stop traffic
Long before she signs up for prostitution, Sammy’s world is populated by men who view her as an object. From her “friend” Brian and a seedy off-licence owner to other seemingly respected members of society, there are numerous men willing to help her debase herself. Sammy’s story is an interesting counterpoint to Nico’s in that she chooses prostitution. Her voice is vivid and credible in the damaged way she views the world and in her desire for self-annihilation. Her journey from the bolshie beauty who knows “her knees stop traffic” to the grim suburban house where the girls are held captive is conceivable, although her inability to escape the situation as the horrors ramp up is less so.
A fear of returning home and a growing bond with Nico are given as reasons, but the street smarts of Sammy’s character are at odds with her decisions later in the book. Her voice is at times too knowing for her situation and age: “They’re all clamouring for my autograph, telling me how beautiful I am, how talented. Superlative – in that role as the whore with no heart.” Elsewhere references to Eminem, “King Em”, feel dated and artificial, while the asides in brackets used to fill the reader in on motivation and backstory disrupt the flow of the narrative.
Despite these issues, there is genuine warmth to Sammy’s character, which shows itself in her relationship with Nico. The dual narratives of their experiences work well to highlight their individual plights. Harding is careful not to let the pace slip with too much repetition, instead choosing details that ping. As the arrival of Nico’s period signals an unimaginable end of innocence, there’s the grotesque parallel back in Dublin of Sammy’s self-inflicted vaginal bleeding. Later, Sammy’s horror at sliced pan and “economy ham” is given a reality check as a starving Nico wolfs sandwiches after passage from the UK in a container. The similarities of their situations are worse again: both girls have their identities stripped from them, have no control over their bodies and are pumped with drugs before being sent out each evening. Harding’s understated approach to the prostitution scenes is skilful writing that makes the horrific details all the more memorable.
Harding has appeared at the Gate and the Abbey and on RTÉ’s Fair City. Returning from London some years ago to concentrate on her writing, she completed an MPhil in creative writing at Trinity in 2014. Her short story Counting Down was a winner in the Doolin Writer’s Prize in 2013 and a new play, Pedigree, was awarded an Arts Council bursary and a Peggy Ramsay award.
Her debut novel is a worthy effort that seeks to highlight a horrendous crime hidden in societies across the world. As Nico herself notes of her new home in run-of-the-mill residential Dublin, “Although this house is warm and bright, it’s still a container of sorts, and I have no doubt the lid is firmly closed”. Harvesting looks to lift that lid.