“Harvest” by Jim Crace (2013) – 208 pages
Like I suppose many others, I was stunned when the 2013 Man Booker longlist was announced, and “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson was nowhere to be found. I really can’t imagine that there have been thirteen eligible novels published this year that are better than “Life After Life”, and even if there were I would still have included this wonderful novel as number 14. Without this solid anchor to hold on to, the longlist seemed to me quite obscure especially since many of the novels have not yet been published or released in the United States.
Up until now, I had only read one of the novels on the longlist, “The Testament of Mary” by Colm Toibin. I did not find that novel particularly impressive, a plain re-telling of a perhaps overly familiar story.
Now I’ve completed my second novel which is on the 2013 longlist, “Harvest” by Jim Crace. I’ve read a couple of novels by Crace before and recognize him as a fine writer.
The setting of “Harvest”, an ancient farm village in an unspecified place and time, seemed like familiar Jim Crace territory. By not having a specific place or time Crace achieves a kind of universality to his stories. He makes these stories come alive by giving us all the concrete details regarding the people who live in the farming village and the events that occur. A few of the concerns that are dealt with in “Harvest” are the villagers’ fear and hatred of outsiders, the conflict between the old village Master and the despotic new village Master, and the supposed use and irrational fear of witchcraft.
Jim Crace has a wonderful way with sentences. Here is just one example of writing that struck me as inspired.
“She was not beautiful, not on first encounter anyhow. She had what we might call (behind her back) a weasel face, wide-cheeked, thin-lipped, a short receding chin, a button nose and eyes and hair as shiny dark and dangerous as belladonna berries.”
Earlier I mentioned the conflict between the old master of the village and the new master. The old master has been in charge for a number of years, and each year the farmers plow the fields, plant the crops, harvest them, and raise the animals. The new master figures this all is a lot of trouble and has a new plan. The new plan is to turn the entire village into a pasture for sheep with fences to keep them in. Of course, keeping sheep would be a lot less trouble than the farming operation and would require many less workers and their families, so the new master and his men start terrorizing the villagers to scare them away.
Crace does an excellent job of setting up this conflict between the new master and the villagers, and we readers become emotionally involved in this battle. However just when the tension level is the highest and the story is most exciting, it seems like Crace backs away from that story by having the new master and his men leave the village, and Crace meanders off to a less affecting story.