Harvest is Jim Crace’s 11th novel and, like many of his other works, is an allegorical tale masquerading as historical fiction. Set in an unnamed English village over a seven day period during which the fields are enclosed, Harvest is really a book about change and about the displacement of a community responding to a major upheaval. It is also a magnificent piece of writing. But more on that in a moment. Because at the heart of the novel is the idea of enclosure, or more specifically, what enclosure meant to communities and it’s probably best to start with what enclosure is.
Traditional agricultural communities were once pretty communal in ethos. Villages had open land with strips set aside for individuals to cultivate their own crops. When those crops were harvested, the land would be open to all for the grazing of livestock. In the 15th century, these common rights over the land started to be removed with an increase in enclosure, the process whereby fields were closed off on all sides by a barrier and the title of the land given to an individual. Much is made over enclosure in terms of a historical understanding of British agriculture: it is seen by some as a way for individual manorial lords to increase their wealth at the expense of the peasantry and by others as an important move from subsistence farming to industry as it bolstered the wool trade, increasing the economic output of many areas. It is generally seen as bad in its earliest manifestation (when fields were enclosed to benefit the lord) and good in its later manifestation (when in the mid-1700s onwards fields were enclosed to profit from more efficient agricultural methods), although that is definitely open to debate. Crace is uninterested in these wider ramifications but uses the historical narrative as an opportunity to explore the effect of such a move on the peasant community.
The narrative is told from the first person perspective of Walter Thirsk, a man not native to the village: he settled there 12 years before and is therefore both sufficiently embedded to feel a part of things, but not sufficiently settled for the other villagers to trust him completely. He is a spectator to a sequence of events that sees the gradual collapse of his community prompted by the arrival of three mysterious strangers (one assumes displaced by enclosure elsewhere) and a fire in the manor house of unknown provenance. Thirsk’s detachment from the community means that much of the actual action happens away from him and provides a sense of helplessness to proceedings, which consequently carry the feeling of inevitability.
Injured in the fire, Thirsk is unable to help with the harvest and ends up helping a cartographer (the rather unsubtly named Mr Quill) survey the land. This further distances him from his fellow villagers, symbolically represented by a shift in pronouns from “we” to “I”, but also more inventively conveyed through the images of the land and the map. The landscape of Harvest would be impossible to represent on a map:
Since Spring we’ve waited with our fingers crossed as our better barley steadily renounced its green and let itself go tawny. From the lane, looking down towards the tracery of willows on the brook, the top end of our barley meadow, bristling and shivering on the breeze, showed us at last its ochres and its cadmiums, its ambers and its chromes. And the smells, which for so long in this slow summer were faint and damp, became nutlike and sugary. They promised winter ales and porridges. The awns and whiskers of the barley’s ears were brittle and dry enough to chit-chat-chit every time they were disturbed, nattering with ten thousand voices at every effort of the wind or every scarper of a rabbit, mouse or bird.
This world is alive (I count 3 or 5 examples of personification, depending on how generous I am being) and understood through the senses. The map is merely “a web of lines”, and Thirsk’s involvement with Mr Quill moves him into a pursuit that is the antithesis of that of the harvesters.
It is not hard to see the allegorical significance but in some respects, that’s part of the book’s charm: Crace has taken a somewhat esoteric historical issue and made it relevant, both by using it to inform our present day and by letting present circumstances cast a light on the past. New technologies, attitudes, and systems arrive and people are the victims; the tide of capitalism erodes the connections we feel to our location and to each other. If anything, Crace is heavy-handed with the symbolic content but manages to avoid turning this into a polemic by refusing to give answers. Much in the book remains mysterious and finishing is oddly dislocating as Crace ensures we have no idea how the future may be for Thirsk. Only that it shall be different. Crace guides us to a conclusion without making it explicit, and that’s an achievement.
What truly carries the book though is the lyricism of Crace’s prose. His writing has a rhythm to it which feels almost poetic and I found myself swept along in the ebb and flow of the sound. Take (as one of many possible examples) the second sentence in Chapter One: “Our land is topped and tailed with flames”. If this were poetry, we could speak of the iambic rhythm, the alliteration on the t and the l, and the assonance on the a. It is a beautifully written work and, of the 2013 nominees I have read so far (including The Lowland which I shall write about next week), it is the book I would most encourage you to read.