Harvest, by Jim Crace, Picador RRP£16.99/Nan A. Talese RRP$24.95, 224 pages
Jim Crace’s 11th book is set in an undated but pre-industrial rural past. This village does not even have a name, is far from any town and is surrounded by common land. Context and characters, as in King Lear, are reduced to spare, bare essentials and, as in King Lear, we are going to see poor “unaccommodated man” suffering and inflicting suffering with the indifference of boys torturing flies.
The background of the story is that in this as-it-were medieval village, the serfs all owe their allegiance to the Lord of the Manor, Master Kent. Their reward for accepting an inferior status is that they can farm the common land and enjoy a measure of prosperity with the produce thereby gleaned. But there are movements afoot – movements that neither we nor the narrator, a literate peasant called Walter Thirsk, fully understand at the beginning of the story.
Master Kent, who is himself in thrall to some more powerful men, is under pressure to enclose the common and to put all the confiscated land to graze sheep. The animals are much more profitable and do not require the expense or complication of human peasant farmers. The villagers will be cast off their land. They will become Poor Tom, a-cold on the Heath.
Three such waifs appear on page one, but it is only on page 148 that we learn their real story. Initially, the three refugees from a neighbouring village, where they have been turfed off their land by greedy wool merchants and sheep farmers, seem to “our” villagers like threatening vagabonds. Crace paints a beautiful Brueghel-like canvas of the harvest. It is the one season of the year when the whole village comes together to reap; and together they work – the women binding the sheaves, the old men making lines of stooks, the children helping, the strong men swinging “their sickles and their scythes at the brimming cliffs of stalk”.
As they do so, they indulge in lewd gossip and banter. We, the readers, share their sense of kinship and dread the interlopers.
If the villagers set foot outside the bounds of the land for even a night they will become outlaws and lose any status they have. Equally, if unwelcome newcomers can stay in a dwelling, however primitive, within the boundary for one night, and light a fire there “before we catch them doing it”, as Walter says, then squatters’ rights are established.
The trio on the edge of the village do just this, in the most primitive of huts. During this, their first night, the revelry of the Harvest Home celebration gets out of hand. Some of the village louts, high on mushrooms, set fire to the squire’s dovecote and nearly burn down the manor house. The three newcomers are convenient scapegoats. The two men are put in the pillory on the edge of the churchyard (there is no church) and the woman has her head shaved.
This is where the story starts to become unbearable, and things only get worse for 200 brilliant pages and six more intolerable days. Crace’s métier is staring into the abyss. Previously in Quarantine (Shortlisted for the Booker and winner of the 1998 Whitbread book of the year), he depicts a weird cultic group surrounding Jesus in the Wilderness, and the truly awful sufferings some of them endure. And in Being Dead (1999) we watch two corpses, those of a married couple, lying decomposing on a sand dune, as Crace dissects not their bodies but their marriage.
Crace again offers us plenty of metaphysical gore in Harvest, as well as some very Cracean moments: an old man who has been hanging in agony in the pillory has died in the night and his rotting legs are then chewed by a hungry pig; someone who has undergone appalling humiliations takes revenge by battering a much-loved horse through the head with a mallet, leaving the weapon “syrupy with blood” in the straw.
One of the most brilliant things about the plot of Harvest is that it is like an envelope gradually turning itself inside out. We seem to be reading about a tightly knit group of insiders (“the paltry fifty-eight”) being threatened by outsiders. But there is no such certainty. Our narrator, the honest, wistful Walter Thirsk, the clever peasant, is eventually turned loose in the world.
Unlike Parsifal, this is a story with no redemption. Walter is tender about his late wife Cecily, who has been dead for 12 years, but no love is lost for the living: there is merely a yearning for a sense of belonging, which the wicked enclosure men destroy. The smells, sights and sheer intransigence of the beautiful land are all vividly described; but the human race is seen with an impassive eye as brutish, instinctively cruel and stupid. Greed wins.
AN Wilson’s most recent book is ‘The Potter’s Hand’ (Atlantic Books)