Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest I often find myself beginning a review by stating where and when the novel is set. With Harvest I can’t do that, because we aren’t told. All we know is that it’s a small rural community where for generations the people who live there have worked on the land, ploughing, planting and harvesting. This is the way of life they have always known and this is how they have always supported themselves and their families.

Things begin to change when a ‘chart-maker’ whom the villagers refer to as Mr Quill arrives and proceeds to measure and map the land. Soon it becomes clear that their new landowner (the Master’s cousin-in-law) has plans to enclose their fields and convert them to sheep farming. Meanwhile, three more strangers have settled on the outskirts of the village and have lit a fire, sending up plumes of smoke to let people know that they are there and planning to stay there. That same day, smoke is also seen coming from the manor house. When it is discovered that Master Kent’s dovecote has been burned to the ground, the newcomers are blamed and the way the villagers react to this crime will have greater consequences than they could ever have imagined.

We see all of these developments through the eyes of Walter Thirsk, who has lived in the village for twelve years but is still seen as an outsider because of his close relationship with Master Kent. Although he refers to himself and his neighbours as ‘we’ there’s always a sense that he is slightly distanced from what is going on. Walter is in the unique position of being part of the community and not part of it at the same time, which makes his story even more interesting.

When reading a novel that appears to be set in the past, it’s natural to want to know exactly which period we are reading about. My guess is that it’s England in the sixteenth century, though it could be slightly earlier or later than that. It is certainly a time of agricultural change, when common land is being fenced off and enclosed. It’s also a superstitious time when strangers are viewed with suspicion and anyone different risks being accused of witchcraft. Other than these facts, we are given very few clues – no names of nearby towns and cities, no mentions of historical figures or events that we could use as a point of reference.

So why does Jim Crace not just tell us when the story is set? The obvious answer is that he doesn’t want us to think of this book as ‘historical’, fixed in the past in a time that has been and gone. He wants us to think beyond this, to consider how some of the ideas in the novel are timeless and still relevant to us today. In Walter Thirsk’s village, the wheat and barley farming that has sustained the people for many years is being replaced with wool production because this will be more cost-effective for the landowner. Anyone who has ever lost their job, lost their home or been forced into a new way of life because of change and progress will know how that feels. This story (or one very similar) could just as easily have been set during the Industrial Revolution or in more recent times when tasks that were once performed by human beings were being replaced by computers.

Harvest is also a beautifully written book. I am not usually a fan of novels written in the present tense, but this is an example of one where it works well and is very effective. The novel only covers a week in Walter Thirsk’s life but it is a very eventful week and the present tense helps to convey the sense that things are moving quickly and happening now. It’s also a book with a lot of atmosphere and an underlying darkness, with the story building in tension towards the end.

This is not the first Jim Crace novel I’ve read. I have vague memories of reading Quarantine, probably soon after it was published in 1997, but I can’t remember very much about it now. That story hasn’t stayed with me but I’m sure this one will.