Katharine Norbury reviews Melissa Harrison’s ‘All Among the Barley’, our current Book of the Month.
‘DAWN’, from a series of posters created by Lewis Heriz to mark the publication of ‘All Among the Barley’. Available to purchase here.
Melissa Harrison has written an astonishing novel. A writer with a formidable output: two novels, four anthologies and one non-fiction volume have all been published to consistent critical acclaim over the last six years. Her first novel, Clay, won the Portsmouth First Fiction Award and her books have been either short- or long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Costa and Wainwright Prizes. Comparisons have been made with the work of Thomas Hardy and Elizabeth Taylor. I would add Neil M. Gunn to the list, for the way in which Harrison’s work is so closely melded to the physical terrain from which her rugged characters emerge – characters who develop slowly, before our eyes, like old photographic images. This idea, of a captured image, an archival record, a memory – with all the flaws and imperfections and room for misinterpretation and the potential for misplaced nostalgia that such a record implies – forms the still, powerful centre of the novel. All Among the Barley is Harrison’s most ambitious, brave and political work to date.
Set in the late summer of 1933, in an English farming community, the book is narrated by Edith Mather, ‘born not long after the end of the Great War’. The reference to the war is relevant. The book describes a community that has been shaped by conflict, or by the memory of conflict. At one level, it is an exquisitely observed portrait of an England that has entirely vanished. The petrol engine would, within a generation, replace the horse, although I am old enough to still have a memory of Farmer Kellet, in south Cumbria, keeping two horses and a horse-drawn plough well into the 1970s ‘in case the tractor broke down’. It is an England that is familiar to readers of Enid Blyton but turned inside out. Harrison’s perspective isn’t that of the Famous Five but of the tough farming communities that Blyton’s books romanticised. Edith Mather is thirteen years old when the story opens, and she is narrating from a point in the future that is later revealed to be 1980s Thatcher’s Britain. Edith is also narrating from a place of confinement, but I don’t want to introduce any spoilers. You’ll just have to read the book. Suffice it to say that, once again, Harrison is unflinching in her engagement with social policies that affected the lives of young, vulnerable women, and remained the norm well into my lifetime.
Edith’s hard, limited, confined life on the family farm is unexpectedly expanded by the arrival of a stranger in the shape of Constance FitzAllen. Middle-class Londoner FitzAllen is documenting ‘the old ways’, and cataloguing a rapidly vanishing way of life. She is collecting recipes, folk songs, histories of the land, and the device serves Harrison well. The developing relationship between the young girl and the older woman allows Harrison to include her reader in the insights that both women gain into the lives of those around them and into the state of the rapidly changing English countryside. The fresh perspective also allows both character and reader to reappraise values they may otherwise have taken for granted. But FitzAllen is not simply a foil for Edith. She represents an aspect of English women’s history that has largely been passed over without comment.
In June this year a seminar took place in Munich, hosted by the British Council and curated by Robert Macfarlane and called, simply, Nature Writing. In conversation with Horatio Clare, Macfarlane explored the myriad and complex aspects of nationalism. But despite the best efforts of their interlocutors several of the writers taking part in the Munich seminar seemed either unwilling or unable to answer questions about why Germany has failed to develop a body of writing comparable to the American-Anglo model, with questions about the hawk and wolf as potentially difficult motifs for a German readership (referring to Macdonald’s iconic H is for Hawk and Hall’s brilliant Wolf Border) lying where they fell. No-one, it seemed, wanted to engage with the fact that the main reason Germany struggles with the idea of ‘Nature Writing’ is because the National Socialists loved the natural world and celebrated everything associated with it.
Harrison has no such qualms. FitzAllen’s passion for all things rustic belies a form of fascism that blossomed intermittently throughout the English countryside during the 1930s. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in the year the novel is set. Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists had been formed in 1932. In a note, Harrison observes that the BUF ‘claimed that 10% of their candidates were women, a higher proportion than for any other [political] party.’ English nationalism, that uniquely difficult and thorny rose, and English fascism, are tackled head-on in All Among the Barley , as is the anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, nostalgia, and sentimentalism for a passing age that characterised that movement. Harrison writes of the past but her eye is clearly on the present, and All Among The Barley serves as both a warning and a parable for our current post-referendum era.
It is also a coming-of-age story. Harrison draws a heartrending portrait of what it is to be a teenage girl who doesn’t quite fit in with her proscribed lot and the tragedy that such a mismatch confers. She writes brilliantly about the loneliness and confusion of Edith’s blossoming from girlhood at a time when women were let down by one another, and made to feel ashamed as a matter of course, as much through a code of dogged familial silence, as by the men who were permitted to exploit them.
If I have written about ideas rather than plot it is because All Among the Barley is as finely calibrated as an antique watch, with tension meted out as event builds on event, as the shifting family relationships within the Mather household push against one another with the force of tectonic plates. A superb achievement.
All Among the Barley is published this Thursday by Bloomsbury. Order a copy here.