Rich bounty of a writer's gift

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

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.

Worse is to follow when the arrival of three strangers, two men and a vixen-like woman, introduces a menace that suggests black magic. Thirsk is a thinker and a man given to dreams; he ponders on all he sees and admits to a higher level of learning than might be expected. This admission enables Crace to balance his allegorical tale on his narrator’s habit of watching and reflecting.

The two men, one young and one older, show themselves when defending from attack the crude hut they have erected. Out of its ruins comes the woman who has been injured inside as the roof collapsed. She has a dangerous allure. Meanwhile the arrival of a friendly if ill-formed gentleman, busy mapping the area, has already set nerves on edge.

End of the old order

It is a narrative concerned with change and the passing of the old order. Master Kent had only married into the manor. He too is an interloper. The presence of the surveyor helps to set the action during the 16th-century enclosures that dramatically altered the English countryside, introduced sheep farming, limited crop cultivation and left the English peasant with no land to work.

Early in the novel it is easy to begin drawing comparisons with a magnificent and long unsung debut novel, Ulverton (1992), by the poet Adam Thorpe. That book, only recently acknowledged as a Vintage Classic, traces 300 years in the life of a fictional Wessex village, and it is told through a series of changing voices. Crace, however, roots his wonderful book in Thirsk, whose rhythmic voice and speech patterns are sustained throughout.

Master Kent immediately orders that the two men be shorn and then placed in the pillory for a week. The woman, spitting and fuming, is also shorn, yet she is allowed to wander off into the rain. The surveyor has already brought unrest, and this intensifies when the kinsman of Kent’s late wife arrives to take possession of the manor. All the while, Walter is responding to the changes not only in the village but also to his role. The new master’s trust in him, as well as his rapport with the surveyor, causes Thirsk’s neighbours to regard him with suspicion.

Mr Quill, the surveyor, renders the village to a set of images. Thirsk grasps the new reality: “With his help these coloured papers, unmarked as yet with any names or guides, make sense to me at last. They complicate to simplify. I have translated them. I can tell you where we are on them. I could stub my finger on the spot where I am standing now . . . There’s something in these shapes and lines, in these casual, undirected blues and greens, that, for all their liveliness, seems desolate.”

However, attitudes to him among the villagers change. Thirsk proves an honest narrator. He is a witness to the upheaval, but he also retreats to his private thoughts. Along with his memories of his wife and of his childhood days spent with Kent in another place, another time, are his feelings of loneliness. Some comfort is to be found in his occasional nights with the Widow Gosse, whose strength of character is made effective. Thirsk does not present himself as either a hero or a saviour.

His mounting weariness seeps through the book. He responds to his surroundings with a subtle lyricism: “every plant and creature also knows that summer’s in retreat. The wayside dandelions have whitened slightly in the last four days. They’re growing pale with age. The year is leaving us . . .”

At his best, as in Being Dead or here in this dramatic lament for a lost way of life, Jim Crace reveals an artistry that is closely bound to truth, reality and the physical world. He explores the natural process of life and death as well as the harsh beauty of both. In a marvellous passage in Being Dead he describes the mourners who might have come in former times to weep for the murdered middle-aged couple, both marine zoologists, left to rot in the sand dunes: “women first, would come as soon as it was dark to start their venerations, weeping till their shoulders shook . . . the greater the racket the greater the grief . . . Death was cultivated, watered like a plant.”

Crace, an original and a literary stylist, with, usually, something remarkable to say, says it here in a haunting work of sudden violence and vengeance.

Harvest has been announced by Crace as his final novel. If so, this is a premature end to a career that began in 1986 with Continent and has subsequently been marked by at least five outstanding novels. Yet it is a majestic leavetaking, honed by an unforgettable narrative voice: resigned, bewildered, ultimately hopeful. “I have to carry on alone until I reach wherever is awaiting me, until I gain wherever is awaiting us.”

The title itself might well reflect a gift well used and rich in its bounty for us, the readers. Few novels as fine or as complex in their apparent simplicity will be published this, or indeed any, year.

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