Hardy with a Hint of Draughtsman’s Contract

This is my review of Harvest by Jim Crace.

In a remote unnamed English hamlet at an unspecified location and time, somewhere around the 1600s, perhaps, the "accidental" burning of the master's dovecotes is blamed on a family of squatters. The ensuing chain of disastrous events plays out against the long-term tragedy of the inexorable forces of change, by which common land, felled woodland and cornfields are to be enclosed for sheep-farming, destroying in the process a stable community in which everyone has a place.

The sustained sense of tension makes this a page turner, even though I suspected the ending would be a will-o-the-wisp. Suspense combined with Crace's striking, original, often poetical language carries you along almost too quickly. You need to read more slowly, or more than once, to grasp the full force of his prose.

Narrator Walter Thirsk's insight and articulate flow of words is explained by a connection since childhood with kindly but weak Master Kent. In what proves a type of fable or morality tale, Thirsk symbolises the human flaw of good intentions rarely put into practice. He may also be an unreliable narrator, lying even to himself at times over the degree of his devious self-interest.

Crace captures the spirit of a lost way of life without glamorising it. Some wry snatches of humour and sharp character studies add spice to the tale. "Harvest" highlights the danger and skin-deep nature of civilisation in rural England, where "might was right", and a landowner could punish and mistreat tenants with impunity. Crace conveys a poignant sense of loss over the destruction of the harmony of people working together, as in the remarkable description of the harvest in the opening pages, and of their deep knowledge and appreciation of nature. At the same time, we are not spared the harsh reality of "Turd and Turf", the filth and hardship of daily life.

Although I would have liked a stronger dramatic conclusion to this tightly plotted tale, Crace is not concerned to impress us with a final twist. The terms "hallucinatory" and "hypnotic" used by professional reviewers are very apt. Claimed to be the last book in a highly regarded body of work, this deserves its place on the Man Booker shortlist.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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