Caught by the River

Harvest by Jim Crace

19th February 2013

Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador, hardback)
Reviewed by Laura Beatty.

Jim Crace has no interest in reality, so he says in interviews. Well, neither do I, now that it is something you have to be inside the television to experience – something for watching rather than living yourself. But before it climbed inside the screen, the Real had the same relation to the Actual, that Truth has to Fact. Let me just explain what I mean. Truth is something beyond the ordinary facts of life, beyond the little circumstances of jobs or houses or cars or illness or holidays. Truths are the shadowy absolutes behind life that we instantly recognise, like mountains in the distance; as fixed, as permanent, as the features of a landscape. We know them somewhere inside ourselves and we find them reassuring. And we know that we’ve known this since about the 5th century BC.

So in the same way, the Real is a permanent and recognisable version of the Actual. It is something that art, and in particular the novel, can make that lets us experience a life bigger than the everyday limits of our actual life day to day. To me the novel – a story that is truly imagined – is vital in every sense. It helps us live bigger and better. It explains what we are like and what we are doing and it warns us where, if we aren’t careful we are going. And this is what Jim Crace does best. He makes up stuff that is absolutely real. I mean that literally.

He makes up people and famously he makes up plants and he makes up places and he also makes up times. He isn’t, in my view writing, as the blurb on his new novel Harvest suggests, about ‘Englishness’, whatever the heck that might be. He is writing about ‘Craceland’ – about how human nature can be, under the circumstances of a godless universe (Crace is an atheist), in a place and at a time that he has imagined.

Harvest, although set in something that has the conditions of the sixteenth century – people in ‘onion hose’ and manor houses without window glass – is no exception to this rule. It takes a village too small to be named and tells the story of its descent, over seven hallucinatory days, as lived and recounted by Walter Thirsk. Thirsk is a town-educated agricultural labourer, an outsider who won shaky acceptance into the community when he fell in love with a local woman and through her, the countryside of her birth. As the novel opens the harvest is gathered and the villagers are set to enjoy their annual celebration. They wake in the morning, to see two plumes of smoke at each end of their known bounds. One is the fire of outsiders. It claims the right of belonging, through the ancient privilege of raising a house on common ground and sending up smoke from its chimney, within 24 hours. The other is arson against the lord of the manor’s hay barn.

The villagers are suspicious of the outsiders. They are suspicious of a man brought in to map their village, and they are rightly most suspicious of all of Edmund Jordan ‘gentleman’, cousin of their current master, who arrives with his train of insolent, town-bred servants, to claim ownership of the village through inheritance. This is a novel with xenophobia at its heart.

Jordan has plans to enclose the land and turn it over to sheep. There may not be enough food, or enough jobs to go round. Through the distortion of flames and fear and a couple of episodes of magic mushrooms, the story unravels to its apocalyptic end. There is an almost claustrophobic atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust, of people who are weak and afraid and vindictive. As with all visits to Craceland, you suffer the odd dislocation of jet lag. Although set in a notional past, the concerns are so current as to feel like warning, the inevitable end like a prediction of futuristic doom.

Crace is, and always has been, the master of unease. It is impossible to read him without getting the adult equivalent of the nervous tummy ache. He started his writing life as a politically motivated journalist with George Orwell as one of his first role models. He remains in the broadest sense a political writer. He writes about how we behave, how we treat each other, how we are meshed together like tumbleweed in an inextricable tangle of events and consequences. ‘Everyone amongst us plays his part, for the good of the whole.’ Edmund Jordan says, as he destroys the village. ‘This is society.‘

Crace’s novels, for all their beauty of description, are man-sized. The land itself, round which the novel notionally focusses, is by contrast almost alien, unreal. It has to be noticed, described, constantly brought into focus like a conscious backdrop. When Thirsk is shown it on a map it turns into a man, the fields his face, neck and shoulders pastureland, the pond his ear and ‘the forests are his hair’.

Along with reality Crace is said to deprecate autobiography but there is no such thing as a novel that doesn’t contain its writer. Crace, like Thirsk is half town, half country. He lives on the edge of Birmingham enjoying a heady mix of urban risk with the rural, observing both but belonging entirely to neither. Perhaps this is his point. We already don’t belong. We cohere only whimsically and in arbitrary groupings, not to a place so much as with each other.

Hailed as a novel about dispossession Harvest is really more about the already dispossessed. Its characters slide across the surface of a landscape meticulously observed, described in the poetic language of the outsider not the half-buried, casual language of belonging. The book is full of diligent naming, of information. It is full of surfaces, mirrors, maps, of conscious viewpoints from outside, hallucination, spectacle. Its characters look down from on high, from the bird’s eye of the mind, or from the man-made turret, or back from the hill top or the village bounds, as though eternally separate from the reality of the place itself. When people die they are not buried. They are just left lying on the surface of the ground, on the open bog of the village’s latrine. Nothing penetrates.

Only once, in the novel’s one glimmer of redemption, does the plough open the earth’s surface. Thirsk cuts two rebellious furrows under a gathering sky.
‘I’d be lying if I said I felt as dark and gloomy as the clouds. I think I’m thrilled in some strange way. The ploughing’s done. The seed is spread. The weather is reminding me that, rain or shine, the earth abides, the land endures, the soil will persevere for ever and ever. Its smell is pungent and high seasoned. This is happiness.’
It is extraordinary – the relief. Earth to earth. If we are denied this access then we are lost indeed it seems, cast out finally, pushing our carts of stolen goods, with Eden shut and flaming behind us.

And this is how Crace has it, his characters unconnected, adrift, blown about the land like the chaff off their fields, or the ashes of their burning village. Transient. We belong to nothing and to no one. We are all just passing through.

Buy here.