‘Harvesting is not an easy book to read, but it is an essential one in this moment’

Man Booker Prize author Sophie Mackintosh on the skill and power of Lisa Harding’s writing about violence against women

Lisa Harding shows us sex trafficking is right in our backyard, and it doesn’t always look like how we expect Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Lisa Harding shows us sex trafficking is right in our backyard, and it doesn’t always look like how we expect Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

It has been a year in which, often, it feels difficult to be a woman. A year of #MeToo and the Kavanaugh hearing and the fight to move towards legalised abortion in Ireland. These are some of the things we have been hearing about; and yet it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In Lisa Harding’s ferocious debut, Harvesting, we’re confronted with something that most of us know little about: the insidious violence of human trafficking, of teenage girls (and younger) being sold into sex slavery. This is an issue right under our noses, an issue that belongs to affluent suburbia as much as it does anywhere else. And this beautifully-written novel demands that we pay attention, that now more than ever we bear witness to the horrors inflicted on girls and women everywhere.

While a work of fiction, Harding’s work is informed by meticulous research, inspired by her own experience reading the first-hand accounts of trafficked minors during her work with the Children’s Rights Alliance. This respect for an incredibly sensitive and demanding subject shows in every line. The voices of the two main characters – innocent 12-year-old Nico, trafficked to Dublin from her home in Moldova, and rebellious, middle-class 15-year-old Sammy, whose performative toughness ends up in her getting way in over her head – are distinct and shining. Though their paths to the seemingly innocuous house of horrors where they’re drugged and sold to client after client couldn’t be more different, their perspectives and trajectories show how worryingly easy it can be to exploit vulnerable young girls in such a way.

I still remember the first time I read Harvesting, and the response it prompted in me. The two distinct voices pulled me in, and I needed to know what would happen to them – I couldn’t put the book to one side until I had seen the story through. The periodic realisations that all of it was based on real-life events was sobering. And yet Harding’s skill and deftness make this more than a book where we’re hit over the head repeatedly with the horror of it all. Some of the most terrifying moments are also the most banal, the horror slowly dialled up so that we barely register it until it’s too late. This isn’t a dank basement with chains; the girls eat cereal, are sequestered on a nondescript housing estate with nice carpets and central heating, all the trappings of a normal suburban life. The contrast of this with the worsening degradation and danger of the girls is truly chilling.

Harvesting is not an easy book to read, but it is an essential one in this moment. It’s difficult to believe that such things could be taking place in Ireland in 2018 – it’s not something we want to believe – but it is happening. There is violence against women that happens across borders, there is a dark underbelly of criminality even in the places we do not expect, and too often women are the victims. There is one gut-wrenching scene where a character we have previously assumed to be “good” proves to be complicit; when in a different situation, even the characters we are supposed to trust can prove themselves to be not who we believe they are.

The power of Harding’s writing and approach is that the protagonists are given a voice even as they are silenced, threatened and coerced. This isn’t a dispassionate account of statistics, of girls reduced to numbers and police cases and headlines, and all the richer for it. For example, Sammy isn’t necessarily the most sympathetic of characters; and yet we are reminded with jolts that she is still a young teenager, troubled and naive despite her attitude, coming from a background financially comfortable but emotionally troubled. She approaches her escape from her traumatic upbringing with bravado, sometimes even a spirit of adventure, until suddenly it’s too late.

Nico’s context is closer to the background we are familiar with when we think about sex trafficking – tricked into it for the hope of a better life, smuggled across to Dublin and shut away. Yet both girls end up in the same place. It’s not an abstract concept, Harding shows us; it’s right in our backyard, and it doesn’t always look like how we expect. The victims of this practice are not one-size-fits-all, faceless cliches conjured up to make a point. And we are reminded just often enough that they are children. Children who should be at school, with their families, growing up at their own pace. It forces us to ask: how many girls are out there going through the same thing as Nico and Sammy, and how can we do better to protect them? And in a society where current legislation around sex work is still not fit for purpose – criminalising the purchase of sex has led to increased attacks on sex workers, and in fact hampers the ability to protect the vulnerable, such as trafficked minors – when are we going to stop moralising and take action?

Harvesting is a book that does not dance around the subject. And why should it? Now is the time for us to speak openly of violence against women and its devastating effects; this is the time to be brave enough to not shy away. After all, teenage girls are written off and failed every day; they shouldn’t be, but the deeply uncomfortable truth is that they are. Never gratuitous, Harding shines a light on the parts of our society that it would be easy enough to slip under the radar. It’s both an insightful work of fiction, and a chilling exhortation for us to do more. The voices of Nico and Sammy will stay with me for a long time, and I know I’m not the only one.
Sophie Mackintosh is a Welsh novelist and short story writer. Her debut novel, The Water Cure, was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.
Harvesting is this month’s Irish Times Book Club choice. We will explore the novel with articles by the author; Michael Lennox and Brian Falconer; fellow writers including Anthony Glavin, Alan McMonagle, Sophie Mackintosh and June Caldwell; academics in the field of creative writing and children’s rights law; the cover designer who created two very different covers for the title and more. Lisa Harding will be discussing her work with Laura Slattery of The Irish Times, this Thursday, November 15th, at 7pm, in the Irish Writers Centre, 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1. It will be available to listen to on irishtimes.com on November 30th.

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