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Farewell to scorched earth

29 November 2013

Peggy Woodford admires Jim Crace's last (he says) novel


Jim Crace
Picador £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT205 )

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.

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