Saturday, November 14, 2020

the last book I read

Harvest by Jim Crace.

Walter Thirsk has got himself into a nice comfortable little rut; in fact so has everyone in his village. Cut off from regular passers-by in their sealed-off little valley they pass the years in simple country pursuits: planting barley, harvesting barley, making porridge and beer out of the harvested barley, occasionally throwing in a bit of wheat to mix it up a bit, some small-scale livestock husbandry, extreme suspicion of and open hostility to strangers, the usual sort of stuff.

The trouble with getting into this sort of a rut is that you can find yourself ill-equipped to adapt to quickly-changing circumstances, and WAIT A MINUTE here are some circumstances quickly changing just as the novel opens: a couple of the younger villagers, hopped up to the tits on some shrooms they've foraged in the local woods, accidentally set fire to the local squire's dovecote and roast all his prize doves. At roughly the same time a small group of strangers sets up camp just inside the boundary of the village. After a tense stand-off when the newcomers - two men and a woman - are discovered, a convenient ruse presents itself: why not fit them up for the dovecote fire? That way we get to put a veneer of justification on the ill-treatment we were itching to mete out anyway, these newcomers being strangers and all.

So the two men are locked up in the town pillory for a week, uncomfortable and humiliating (especially given that you presumably don't get let out when you need a shit) but not usually fatal. However, the older man is a bit on the short side and unexpectedly dies of strangulation after several hous of standing on tiptoe.

Further unwelcome change is afoot when the lord of the manor's brother-in-law turns up and asserts his right to have a say in how the manorial lands are managed (the current lord having married into the job rather than having any hereditary rights himself). Screw all this subsistence-level faffing about with barley, let's open up the field system a bit and get a couple of hundred sheep in here. The locals won't like it? Well, screw those guys, they'll have to get used to the idea.

Word gets around and disgruntlement ferments: one of the new lord's men is badly beaten and stabbed and someone kills the current lord's horse messily with an iron spike. Some of the village women are hauled before the new lord and accused of witchcraft and released only on the condition that they banish themselves from the village.

Suspicion is rife among the villagers, and falls particularly on Walter: firstly because an injury sustained while trying to fight the dovecote fire has meant that he's been unable to take part in this year's harvesting activities and therefore might have had some free time for a bit of the old treachery, and secondly because despite having lived in the village for many years and married a local girl (now deceased) he was not born there and is still in some sense an "incomer".

Gradually all the villagers except Walter drift away, afraid of further retribution. Walter is taken into the confidence of the lords up at the manor house and told to mind the village in their absence, not that there is much to mind as everyone else has upped and gone. The only other souls left in the place are the man still in the pillory and the woman, revealed to be his wife, who has been lurking in various now-uninhabited bits of the village. Walter releases the man from his confinement and persuades him to collaborate in an act of defiance against the new regime: plough the recently-cleared barley fields and sow them with winter wheat. This task complete, Walter retires back home to get pissed on some home-brew and sober up the following morning with some of the magic forest shrooms. Arriving back at the manor in a bit of an addled state he finds that the man has now been reunited with his wife and together the pair have trashed and robbed the place and are now conducting their own personal act of revenge by torching all the houses in the village. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, and not fancying waiting for the lords of the manor to return, Walter stashes some belongings in a rucksack and heads off out of the valley and beyond the village boundary stones to seek his fortune in the outside world.

This is, I think, the sixth Jim Crace novel I've read, three of which have featured on this blog: Arcadia, The Gift Of Stones and The Pesthouse (the other two are Quarantine and Being Dead). All are excellent, but I think Harvest is probably the best of all. I love a tale of time-travelling space zombies battling robot Hitler on an exploding neutron star as much as the next person, but there's something very appealing about a simple and unadorned tale told in a simple and unadorned style just saying: look, you see, here are people; this is how people are; this is how they treat each other; you see what happens. You'll recall that despite my enjoying The Pesthouse greatly I had a few quibbles about its structure and plotting: I have no such quibbles here. One thing that was unusual about The Pesthouse was that it specifically named its location (America, though admittedly that's relatively non-specific) - most other Crace books are very cagey about when and where they are set and how closely this is meant to resemble any real-world location. While we assume Harvest's location is England in the Middle Ages no specific indication is ever given, apart, perhaps, from Walter's surname which suggests a northern location.

Harvest won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2013; previous winners featured on this blog include The Road, The Corrections, Midnight's Children and G. It also won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2015; the previous winner featured here is Remembering Babylon.

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