Rich bounty of a writer's gift
Jim Crace: brilliant at evoking a sense of place. photograph: andrew bainbridge
FICTION:The British writer Jim Crace’s new – and, he says, last – novel is a haunting work of vengeance and sudden violence in a medieval English village. It’s a majestic leavetaking of a long and fruitful career
Harvest, by Jim Crace, Picador, 273pp, £16.99
Unexpected plumes of smoke in warm weather alert Walter Thirsk, solitary countryman and narrator of this elegiac, quasi-visionary novel, that all is not well in the simple English village in which he labours for his bread. He is part of the community in the care of a local landowner, Master Kent. Yet Thirsk, now middle aged, who came to the village with Kent only “a dozen or so years” earlier, is aware that he does not quite belong and never will. The bonds of kinship are too tight. Whatever hope he once had of earning his place died with his wife, a villager, and the children they never had.
Fire is the starting point of a story that grows throughout in symbolism. Flames and the smell of burning timber initially lead Thirsk and his neighbours to the sad discovery that the master’s once pretty dovecote has been destroyed – and, with it, the birds.
It is a sad moment, particularly coming at a time of celebration, harvest’s end. “We were expecting,” he reflects, “to sleep long and late this morning, with heavy shoulders naturally but with buoyant hearts.”
The British novelist Jim Crace (born in 1946) has written several of the finest English novels published during the past 21 years, including Arcadia (1992), Signals of Distress (1994), Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (1999), possibly his finest book, although this new one, Harvest, pushes it close. The rhythmic power of his prose, with its vivid physical imagery, brings his stories to life. Whether the action takes place on a sandbar in a west-of-England coastal town during the 1830s as a grounded US sailing ship awaits refloating, or in the desert of Judea some 2,000 years ago, Crace is brilliant at evoking atmosphere, mood and an all-persuasive sense of place.
In Harvest, the land-locked village remains unnamed and the master of the manor, Kent, in common with Thirsk, is a widower. No dates are given, no historical events mentioned. Yet even before the village pillory is put to use, Crace has established a sense of the late-medieval world: the hedges, the trees, the tilled fields that have yielded a final harvest. When the villagers see the fire, they act as one, the narrator included, to salvage what they can. They succeed in saving the master’s hay, at painful cost to Thirsk, whose hand is severely burnt.