As I was driving home a few evenings ago, the fading summer light was shimmering over the wheat fields. The sky was that curious evening mix of dark, menacing clouds and bright open blue. For miles the golden patchwork of fields stretched ahead of me and I felt that sense of a season starting to wane. This time of year is always the start of a languorous stretch into crisp mornings and woodsmoke on the air.
The ripening wheat has also been the perfect backdrop for the book that I have been reading, Harvest by Jim Crace. I read Being Dead with the staff book club at the V&A (which I wrote about here) when I worked there, and really enjoyed his soft and affecting prose. So, when I discovered that he had just had another book published I bought it straight away.
It’s the story of an isolated village, over the course of a week, at some point before the introduction of enclosure on common land – before 1820 I would say, although it is not made clear. There is the mention of plague so perhaps it’s set in the 17th century? It doesn’t matter, Crace ensures that the detail is focused on the rhythm and life of a community living with, by and for the land. The air is heavy with change and with that comes the exposure of human nature.
The tale is narrated by Walter Thirsk, a widower who has lived there for 12 years. He is both villager and outsider and recounts the events of the week with an honest tongue. Enclosure meant the irrevocable change of an established way of life in England, local customs were lost as the wool trade altered boundaries and changed a community’s relationship with the land… pasture has no need for the plough. So it is under this shadow of change that the village harvest the barley for the last time, it’s a community under threat so when newcomers settle on the edge of the village suspicion and superstition start to take hold.
Very quickly a chain of events unfolds which ultimately leads to the destruction of the village, a way of life, a community and the ties that can hold us all to one, fixed patch of earth – the ties of home.
Reading this was like reading a book that was written especially for me, the words flew off the page and landed in my imagination, transformed into a world in which I was able to walk. The brilliance of Crace’s storytelling is that questions remain unanswered, small acts of human weakness result in large consequences and he captures the essence of human instincts.
Harvest is one of the best books that I have read for a long time and I am pleased to see that it is on the longlist for the Booker Prize. It’s a beautiful, touching read and as the crops are currently being gathered in, now is the perfect time to read it.