‘Harvesting’: a portrait of misogyny and female friendship
Anthony Glavin admires the powerful pair of protagonists in Lisa Harding’s ‘Harvesting’
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy outside the Dáil with campaigners calling on social media to be mobilised against sex trafficking on EU anti-trafficking day in 2012. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
To describe Lisa Harding’s remarkable debut novel Harvesting as character-driven is both accurate and tautological, given how it’s hard to imagine a novel succeeding without a cast of players we care about, are intrigued or puzzled by, and yes, those who simply dismay, appal or terrify. In this instance, however, it is a compelling melange of heartbreak, fear and admiration cum empathy which utterly binds and bonds us to the fate of its dual protagonists – Nico, an innocent, 12-year-old, eastern European girl who has been sex-trafficked from rural Moldova to Ireland, and Sammy, a 15-year-old, troubled, street-wise, Dublin girl – who find themselves housemates of a kind in a brothel situated in a middle-class Irish ghost estate.
Harvesting’s “brilliantly written” blurb-speak is also entirely on the money – something which blurbs don’t always manage – the novel’s prose at once pictorial, limpid, lucid – indeed almost scarily so when you consider this is Harding’s first published fiction, though somewhat less so when we take into account the three stage-plays she also has among her writing credits.
Indeed, it’s highly likely Harding’s own well-established acting career, with both TV and stage roles, has similarly abetted her ability to inhabit the consciousness of her two leading characters. And inhabit their characters Harding definitively has, for it is their two, distinct, deftly crafted and hugely persuasive first-person narrative voices that deliver a heartfelt, oft heart-breaking, yet somehow against all odds, ultimately affirmative tale. Better yet, each of the two protagonists gets to tell the story – their story and their shared stories both – via alternating chapters which serve the novel in gripping fashion.
What’s more, there somehow also unfolds a marvellously knowing, positive portrait of young feminine friendship – of the bond that gradually develops between Sammy and Nico, and which subsequently helps to carry them both – and carry the reader too – through some, if not all, of what befalls them. And Sammy’s persuasively drawn, loyal schoolgirl friend, Luce, deserves a shout-out too, for all she endeavours to do out of her love for her best pal, along with Nico’s older, sole caring brother of three, Luca.
As it happens, family fails to play a positively fostering part for both Moldovan Nico and Irish Sammy; fails to deliver a nurturance that might have spared them from such a horrendous, nightmarish path. Instead, failed parenting lies at the heart of what has Sammy hurting from an early age, while her own father’s utter, heartless dereliction of care is what turns Nico’s world upside down practically overnight. “I wonder what kind of a world it is that Papa gets to make all of the decisions over Mama?” Nico wonders as she prepares to leave her beloved home at her father’s bidding, nay not bidding, but utter betrayal.
“Patriarchal” is one word to describe what kind of a world this is – the kind of world we all arguably inhabit – though neither patriarchy nor its saddle pal, misogyny, seems strong enough to describe the monstrous world which Sammy and Nico will experience – not unless we honour the Greek miso-and see misogyny as nothing less than the hatred of women. However, Harvesting is firstly and lastly a novel – a wonderfully multi-layered, complex novel to be sure – which determinedly eschews any and all polemics, preferring instead to have its readers ponder and puzzle over those older so-called “sex-trade” women like Magda and Irina, who look after – or better put, try to look after – the young girls in their care, while simultaneously serving as conflicted, albeit ensnared and complicit intermediaries between the male-driven sex trade industry and its youngest female victims.
There’s further wisdom herein too, as the two girls puzzle over how the men they encounter – nay service – “were once boys. And what happens to them?” There’s also ample artistry throughout, whether the depiction of Nico’s untutored athleticism, or an echo of George Orwell’s 1984 thrush in the bird that sings its heart out in a springtime tree outside the girl’s Co Dublin lodgings – in as ghostly an estate as you’ll ever encounter. Consider too the nautical narrative arch which subtly underpins the storyline, and had this reader’s all-but-broken heart in his mouth over the final pages, which somehow manage to offer up an affirmation against all odds.
Timely is the last adjective then which I’ll throw at this singular novel, its storyline cut from the very same bolt of cloth as the growing global tidal wave of reported sexual abuse, attacks and harassment of girls and women by boys and men around the globe. A #Me Too movement which in this stunning novel is brought chillingly home by way of a former Soviet republic to our complicit European island. Let me leave it at that, adding only how I wish Vladimir Nabokov might’ve had the chance to read Harvesting before he sat down to write Lolita.
Anthony Glavin’s novels are Nighthawk Alley and Colours Other than Blue. Harvesting (News Island) is November 2018’s Irish Times Book Club selection