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HARVEST is set in
the Tudor period, when the enclosure of common land was speeded up
throughout England to make pasture for sheep and cattle. Walter
Thirsk, through whose eyes the tale is told, is fearful that a way
of life he loves will soon be gone for ever.
In hauntingly precise prose,
the seven days of the story unfold, from the arrival of three
colourful if dangerous strangers, who will cause havoc and death,
to Thirsk's own departure after the manor's new owner ("a town owl,
all hoot and no talons") also arrives, and makes it clear that the
enclosure of the hamlet's open common is about to begin. "The sheaf
is giving way to sheep."
The novel begins and ends
with fire: the first is a small smoky one of green sticks made by
the strangers as they approach the hamlet to alert the residents of
their arrival; the last a terrible conflagration of a very
different type caused by those same visitors.
Describing a world lit only
by fire, the author is adept at its rich implications, evoking the
contrast of light and dark to further the action. But Jim Crace's
style is to show, not to explain: the reader has to be fully
attentive, or a crucial point is missed.
Crace has said that, at 67,
Harvest will be the last novel he writes. This perhaps
accounts for the valedictory feel of the last few pages. His
protagonist is leaving the hamlet where he has lived and toiled and
loved; he walks away from a burnt and ruined place with no future,
leaving the harvest uncollected. But there is also a sense of an
end in the prose itself, and to me the final brief chapter holds a
lessening of weight: it is almost a perfunctory wave of the hand in
farewell after a job well done.
The first novel that I
reviewed for the Church Times, Purple Hibiscus
(2004) by the then unknown Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was so good
that I wanted to call it a masterpiece, but resisted - we are all
shy of risking that word. But it was indeed a masterpiece, and
Harvest is another.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.