Jim Crace wins IMPAC award for outstanding Harvest

Novel is terrific and tells story of rural community faced with the coming of enclosure

This year's International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has been won by the revered British writer Jim Crace with his dramatic pastoral Harvest.

He is the 4th Briton to win the prize worth €100,000 which is now in its 20 year. It is an important win for a fine novel by a gifted original.

Crace (69) has written some of the most intriguing novels to appear over the past 25 years. In any company, Harvest is outstanding.

This result, announced at a ceremony in Dublin this morning, further consolidates the international relevance of the award, although this time the winning book is not in translation and IMPAC has been hugely relevant in alerting readers to the quality of international fiction in translation.


English-language fiction currently overshadowed by the quality of translated writing needed an outstanding work and Crace has written one.

Included in the short list of 10 novels were last year's Man Booker-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North by the Tasmanian Richard Flanagan and a previous IMPAC winner Ireland's Colum McCann for his 7th novel Transatlantic, as well as the young Australian Hannah Kent for her historical novel Burial Rites which is based on the real life story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

There were three other women writers in contention, the Americans, three-time Pulitzer nominee Alice McDermott and Roxana Robinson, as well as the Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her characteristically bravura narrative Americanah about race in America.

The brilliant Siberian Andrei Makine who writes in French was short-listed for Brief Loves That Live Forever. It was one of only three works in translation to feature this year in a selection that was dominated by English-language titles.

Brazil’s Bernardo Kucinski’s K exposing the tragic plight of the ‘disappeared’ in his country and the Moroccan Mahi Binebine’s stark melodrama Horses of God, based on the 14 suicide bombers who devastated Casablanca in a series of attacks on May 16 2003. Both novels consolidated the political undercurrent of this year’s shortlist which disappointingly overlooked Daniel Woodrell’s The Maid’s Version.

Crace's win is a victory for the art of fiction. One of the finest overall winners to date and sharing the English-language honours with the inaugural IMPAC winner Australian David Malouf, the great Nova Scotian Alistair MacLeod and the young Briton Jon McGregor, Crace has a bold approach to storytelling.

A self-described fabulist he is interested in ideas, not characters, not even plot. Harvest looks to the late medieval world and tells the story of a rural community faced with change, the coming of enclosure. It is about the break up of the open land as it is about to come into the hands of the few. As a writer Crace, author of major novels such as Arcadia (1992), Signals of Distress (1994), the Booker-nominated Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (1999), winner of the US National Books Critics Circle Award, possesses a political sensibility and is interested in the collapse of society.

In Harvest Walter Thirsk, a widower, with a melancholic worldview witnesses the events which follow the arrival of three strangers; two men and a small, fierce woman into a tiny community in which the harvest has been completed. The actions of the trio and their probable implication in a diversionary fire create conflict while the woman’s presence proves disturbing. The village pillory is put to use.

Menace infuses the novel which is a mediation that is as practical as it is elegiac, Thirsk is a thinker yet he misses little. There is increasing tension as old beliefs are challenged. The old order is indeed about to change. Crace looks to the English literary tradition and celebrates the language of Shakespeare. Harvest is a response to the past.

Yet for all its subtle historical and cultural nuance, it is not research-bound. Crace delights in invention not facts. It is this cool visionary evocation of a suggested glimpse rather than a direct confrontation which causes Harvest to soar artistically in contrast to the earth-bound diligence of Kent’s heavily-researched Burial Rites which is interesting if lacking in the imaginative impulse which is central to Crace’s rich, ironic and subversively individual art.

“It is the evening of this unrestful day of rest and the far barn that has survived the fire is full of harvesters, lying back on bales of hay and building up an appetite on rich man’s yellow manchet bread from Master Kent’s elm platters. We’re drinking ale from last year’s barley crop. Again we benefit from the seasons.” The English landscape provides a vivid backdrop to the narrative.

Harvest triumphs through its atmosphere, the allusions and a shimmering sense of place. It is sustained by symbolism and ambiguity, fire comes to mean many things. In Walter Thirsk Crace has created a solitary, observant outsider, yeoman to the core with a poetic affection for his failing world: "Yet every plant and creature also knows that summer's in retreat. The wayside dandelions have whitened slightly in the last few days.

They’re growing pale with age. The year is leaving us. As are the swallows….They always feel the chilling and the thinning of the air before we do, and understand when it is time to leave.” Each word is weighed, each phrase calmly deliberate.

Harvest is a terrific winner, a deserved victory for Jim Crace and a further endorsement for this very important award.

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times