Review by Emma Warren
Melissa Harrison’s first novel, Clay, was located in the small parcels of land left unbuilt upon in the city. It was a book set in the park, on the common and down the high road.
This second novel extends her psychic geography a couple of days walk north of London, up the old Roman road the A10 is built on, to a small village towards which main character Jack is heading on foot, hoping to pick up some work on a small asparagus farm.
Harrison is brilliant on the margins, depicting a low-resource England of plant hire firms and makeshift footbridges made from plastic trench covers. Woods are ‘opportunistic’ rather than wild, and Jack has to search hard for fields and copses where he can sleep and relax with his peers, ‘blunt-nosed badgers in their centuries-old setts.’
Jack is the prism through which Harrison’s skill as a nature writer really shines. The front gardens he passes on the way out of London are ‘blanched by the sodium lights to a uniform paleness’ and blackcaps sing from scrubby field margins which are ‘without distinction… yet in summer [the] edges foamed with meadowsweet and in autumn it bore clutches of mushrooms like pale eggs’.
Accordingly, he’s the character who provides the most lyrical moments in this precise and beautifully written book. He wakes up, ‘surrounded by the whirr of pinions, the breeze from their wings fanning his face as a dozen or so birds exploded from his body up into the branches of the little wood in which he lay.’ There are glossy, wind-blown lines of words throughout: swallows line up on telephone wires ‘like musical notes’; hedgerows ‘stroked the sides of cars… whispering along their hot flanks’. Trees make a ‘nave overhead; midges danced on columns in still air.’ The nature writing is always there, singing in the background like the robin who trills as Jamie opens up the bonnet of his Corsa.
There’s a story too, of course. Jack and the other characters – unhappy new arrivals Howard and Kitty, local boy and boy racer Jamie – are heading towards disaster, one we see spilled out over a road in the first pages of the book. Even aside from the literal car crash that bookends the story, there’s are losses layered throughout, like in the lane of double oaks Jack looks for, where bereaved travellers were said to bury their children with an acorn in each hand.
It’s a book that lives up to its title. Folklore held that hawthorn was sacred and that damaging it caused supernatural havoc and there was a superstition against bringing hawthorn into the house. There’s a biochemical root to that fear: a chemical in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first to form in dead bodies, providing an olefactory mirror that our ancestors would have been well aware of. Harrison weaves hawthorn time, past and present, deep into her hypnotic, moving and myth-soaked book.
We will be hosting the launch of At Hawhorn Time at Rough Trade East, London E1 on Thursday 23 April. More details here.