Short listed for the 2013 Man Booker Award, Harvest chronicles a fateful week in the history of a remote English village, so small that it does not even have a church; it hangs its holiday garlands from the outstretched arms of the stocks that stand in the village square. The town belongs to Master Kent; it is through his benevolence that the grain is sown, that the pig pens are stocked, that the beer is brewed. His portion comes first, but he is generous in his largess and no one goes hungry who works.
This story is told entirely in the voice of middle aged Walter Thirsk. Walter had arrived in the village some dozen years earlier, accompanying Master Kent and his wife as they took up residence in their newly inherited manor, and to manage the town that had grown up around it. He never expected to settle there, but that was before he met and married Cecily, a local girl. To be with her he left the manor and took up residence in one of the modest village cottages, becoming – like everyone else – a barley farmer. Yet after years of working side by side with the villagers, he is still considered an outsider.
This year, the harvest has just been completed, and the good folk are looking forward to a day without hard labor before the gleaning of the crops commences, along with the festivities and celebration that accompany this yearly rite of passage. It’s been an adequate harvest; not bountiful, but not miserly, either. There will be grain enough for the winter, for the bread and the beer, if they are careful. No one will starve.
But the day does not turn out as expected, as anticipated. The townsfolk are wakened in the early hours of their one slothful morning by two plumes of smoke. The first is more intriguing than threatening – strangers have claimed land at the edge of the woods, and according to custom they have stealthily raised four walls and a roof in a crude approximation of a cottage, and have built a smoky fire with green branches to announce their intention of settling the land.
Far more alarming is the smoke billowing from the Master’s stable and storage barn. Once Master Kent’s mare, feisty Willowjack, is rescued and as many round bales of hay that had not yet blazed up are rolled away from the flames (the effort of which left Walter with a badly burned hand), speculation begins on the cause of the fire. Walter is pretty sure that a trio of young trouble-makers he encountered in the middle of the night took a prank too far, trying to smoke out the Master’s doves from the cote at the top of the stables but instead sparking the flames that have reduced the building to ashes. But those young men preemptively cast suspicion on the newcomers before too many questions can be asked. Soon a confrontation develops – one that sets in motion actions that reverberate in ways both unexpected and devastating.
Walter is an educated man, but he’s also one who revels in simple, hearty joys. His narrative is exquisite, pastoral, thick with feeling and full of musing, but without becoming banal. He ruminates – a lot – but expresses himself with a stream of consciousness that is as solid as the land; there is nothing frivolous in the thoughts he shares.
“Beer and bacon’s all that matters here,” I said, sighing in agreement, because in those early days I feared that only those who had been cradled in this place could endure its agonies. But once I found my Cecily and put a hand to husbandry myself, I soon turned into one of them, a beer and a bacon man who knew the proper value of an iris bulb. It did not take many working days before I understood that the land itself, from sod to meadow, is inflexible and stern. It is impatient, in fact. It cannot wait. There’s not a season set aside for pondering and reveries. It will not let us hesitate or rest; it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it. I has no time to listen to our song. It only asks us not to tire in our hard work. It wants to see us leathery, our necks and forearms burned as black as chimney oak; it wants to leave us thinned and sinewy from work. It taxes us from dawn to dusk, and torments us at night; that is the taxing that the thrush complains about. Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools. The clamor deafens us. But that is how we have to live our lives.
Harvest is not a long book, but it is a wordy book, and at times, coming from a single point of view, it comes dangerously close to bogging down. But there is enough action in play, enough of a need for an exposition in the spiraling complication of events impacting this rustic village, that we keep turning the pages eagerly, and sometimes with trepidation.
Jim Crace has given us what feels like an authentic glimpse into what is often depicted as bucolic, but teems with conflicts and the mess of life as much as any other corner of the universe. It is Walter’s calm voice that keeps us on track, that does not allow us to be drawn into modern hyperbole and drama. Yes, it is a book full of words, but they are mighty fine words – mighty fine words, indeed.