Saturday 24 March 2018

Apocalyptic threat to villagers' way of life

Contender: Jim Crace was nominated for the Man Booker two years ago
Contender: Jim Crace was nominated for the Man Booker two years ago
Jim Crace

Rachel Dugan

English author Jim Crace's Harvest, like fellow IMPAC nominee Colum McCann's TransAtlantic, was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013, and for a time it was the bookies' favourite to scoop the prize. Crace and McCann were ultimately both overlooked in favour of 28-year-old Kiwi novelist Eleanor Catton, whose 832-page whodunnit set during the New Zealand gold rush, saw her become the youngest author to ever win the prize.

Now McCann and Crace find themselves once again pitted against each other, as well as last year's Booker winner - a rather curious situation created by the IMPAC award, which always offers a temporally eclectic shortlist. Crace's inclusion is all the more poignant as Harvest, his 11th book, was to be his last novel before he retired from the world of book-writing for good.

Harvest certainly feels like a novel that is attempting to carry the weight of something far bigger than what lies between its pages. Crace's final offering is set up very much like an allegory, the lack of geographical or temporal markers giving us the feeling that we are in territory of fable. We cannot be sure when, or where, we are, but our narrator, widower Walter Thirsk, tells us all we need to know: "It is just The Village. And it's surrounded by The Land".

Thirsk is, like the reader, an outsider, a blow-in who married into this closed community of just 58, many years previously.

From the opening pages, it is clear that this pre-industrial, English village is under threat. We are told of mysterious smoke visible at the boundaries of the Land. These distant plumes signal the start of a period in which the rituals and routines of this pastoral idyll will be dismantled until nothing remains.

The smoke comes from a group of unwelcome strangers setting up a makeshift homestead on the fringes of the Village. Displaced from their own land, they have come intent on claiming squatters' rights. A second pillar is also visible, though its origin is the manor house, where the Master's dovecote and stables have been set on fire.

But these strangers are only one of the outside forces poised to disrupt the villagers' existence. A surveyor has been sent to size up the land, to map and name what has been until now simply The Land, and a new squire intent on making more money from The Land has arrived with him.

"We mowed with scythes; he worked with brushes and with quills. He was recording us, he said, or more exactly marking down our land," Walter tells us. These twin threats conspire to bring about the destruction, not just of the village, but of a whole way of life.

Crace's prose remains taut and sparse throughout, mirroring the simplistic thrust of the narrative, but is never anything less than breathtaking. The sense of impending doom that permeates every crevasse of the book is truly chilling, ensuring that you are left haunted by Crace's apocalyptic vista.

At times, Harvest staggers a little under the weight of its own ambition. Thirsk turns out to be an unreliable and frustrating narrator and while all the action happens over the course of a brief, and biblical, seven days, the novel definitely drags at points. Many readers may feel cheated by what is, ostensibly a piece of historical fiction that remains frustratingly and stubbornly timeless.

Those looking for something a little more epic, that deals with big themes like the onset of modernity, a way of life thrown in chaos and the upheaval of change that all societies must face up to, will reap many rewards from Crace's swansong.

Fiction: Harvest

Jim Crace

New Island, pbk, 249 pages

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