Harvesting is a fierce and heartbreaking tour de force
Ithaca author Alan McMonagle on the storytelling craft that powers Lisa Harding’s debut
Lisa Harding: the narrative swerves from the here-and-now, from the real to the imagined, casting back to moments from a more palatable past to conjured glimpses of an unlikely future
Novels are never finished, merely abandoned. This is something I remember an early teacher advising. Later, a writing friend intriguingly extended the observation – you will know your novel is finished, he said, when it is smarter than you are. And of course there is the matter of reader involvement and another observation made to me that not until the reader (as well as the author) gets through the book can you even begin to consider it finished.
Harvesting gifts the reader with not one but two reading experiences. It is presented as a parallel narrative, with each of the early-teenage-girl point-of-views a ticking time bomb that comes with its own this-is-really-happening immediacy and ringing-bell inevitability. One of the narrative strands culminates with the merest glimmer of hope, the other in its exact opposite. And it is from the warp and woof of these contrasting destinies and from the inexorable relentlessness of the journeys thereto wherein the novel derives its affecting power.
Of course the most effective endings will, more often than not, redirect all the way back to a story’s beginnings. Harvesting plunges the reader straight into its dual storyline, quickly locating and then isolating its two leads. Nico lives in a rural village, somewhere in eastern Europe. Ostensibly all is well. Nico is cautious, polite, sensitive. She likes to swim, run, climb trees, write essays, she gets along with her siblings and is performing well at school. Keep it up and she may have a future to look forward to.
This does not seem to be the case for Sammy, Nico’s Dublin-based urban equivalent, who explodes off the page with the force and gumption of an anti-hero you just know is going to find all the trouble she wants. Sammy is wild, irreverent and not averse to an edgy line in manipulation as a means to an end, even it involves extreme self-harm. At 15, she has already been around the block a few times, and though there doesn’t appear to be much for her to strive towards, she is already resolved in her intent to pack a trolley-case and strike out alone – a move which, in itself, represents a sobering reflection on the extent to which her domestic circumstances (absent father, zombified mother) have already impacted on Sammy’s troubled life.
But Sammy and Nico share lots of common ground too. And it is by alighting on these character overlaps that Harvesting really begins to reveal its humanity. We meet both characters in the last days before a return to school. There is talk of prize-winning essays and imaginative ability. Both characters like to look to the sky, as if for signs, favourable or, perhaps, otherwise. Then their circumstances abruptly change. And proceed rapidly from bad to worse to pretty much nigh-on unimaginable. The one has no choice. The other flails and blunders blindly in her attempts to go it alone. The two voices slip and slide back and forth across a veritable spectrum of confusion, fear, uncertainty, defiance, helplessness, appeal, desperation, and resignation.
Caught in a vice-grip of daytime captivity and nocturnal sex-work, the two girls reach for whatever they can cling to, something – anything – that will help them through the days hours minutes. A glass of “champers” here. A “floaty” pill there. A glimpse of sky. A tree. A cloud. A happy memory. A water motif develops, a delicate thread woven through the narrative, a presence that is there and yet not there. The sea – “the shifting blue” – becomes an ideal, a place of balm, comfort, rest, safety. By now, the two girls have crossed paths, the merging narrative’s ticking-clock inevitability impossible to ignore, and as though all along aware of what has been set in motion, the writing seems to drag itself reluctantly onward. In a similar fashion, the reader is dragged onward too. And yet...read on we must.
The terrible happenings notwithstanding, there are rewards for the close reader. Each of the two narrative strands comes with its own built-in rhythm and lend-me-your-ears intimacy. The narrative swerves from the here-and-now, from the real to the imagined, casting back to moments from a more palatable past to conjured glimpses of an unlikely future. An instance a little past the halfway mark involving Sammy comes to mind. She has just been moved to a secret location and, alone in her room, the seriousness of her situation has dawned on her to the extent she returns herself to a scene from early childhood and she is learning to ride a bicycle with her parents, a scene rendered in all its vivid detail and childhood glee. It is a brilliantly executed narrative leap, a leap that brings the symptoms of Sammy’s tragic existence into urgent and sharp relief. Similarly, Nico transforms a cloud in the sky above her into a cantering horse that is somehow going to whisk her away from it all.
Wonderful asides (Sammy on her mother; Nico on the “baby acorns”) and instances of self-reflection abound, instances a lesser writer might have missed or left out or simply not bothered with. The author makes brave decisions. The language pushes when it has to, the curtain is not drawn on the warts-and-all happenings – as though some higher knowledge is at work: sometimes it is necessary to have it all laid bare for us; sometimes what is actually happening is worse than anything the imagination can conjure. The never-stated suggestion here, perhaps, being that, by now, the reader has become more than merely a passenger in the narrative’s horrendous trajectory.
A large part of writing is about presenting events, and dramatising events without necessarily providing wrapped-with-a-ribbon conclusions. It is about finding the right questions and animating these questions. And just as the right questions may not arrive with quick and easy answers, a well-considered narrative will always leave room for the reader. This affecting novel provides the reader with ample room. It is the spaces between the page and the reader’s imagination where characters get to live and breath. Nico and Sammy start their respective journeys thousands of miles apart. Great distances – spatial, temporal, geographical, psychological, physiological – separate them, before they come fleetingly together, befriend each other, look out for each other, only to be ripped apart from each forever. The sea – and all it has stood for – finally makes its appearance, lays its particular claims. In Nico’s case, it serves as a flicker of hope; and also as a means for her and Sammy to make their farewells to each other as Nico, afloat and turned to the sky, can at last allow in an experience that contains no pain. It’s a devastating final moment.
And I think it is the combination of Nico and Sammy’s unlikely and oh-too-fleeting coming together, and see-it-through inevitability of either storyline that represents Harvesting’s fierce and heartbreaking accomplishment.
Alan McMonagle is the author of Ithaca. Harvesting is published by New Island and is the November 2018 Irish Times Book Club choice