by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
I peruse many book reviews before deciding what new novels to order for the library. When I read a review that peaks my interest, I flag it so that I can see the book when it arrives. That said, this is a frequent scenario: Said book arrives and as I stare at it blankly and think, “Why did I ever think this would be a good book to read”!
The history of why I came to be reading Harvest by Jim Crace follows the ‘huh?’ pattern I just outlined. I know something in the review of Harvest got my attention. So book in hand, I turn it every which way, reading the summary on the front flap, the author biography on the back flap, and the snippet of poetry by Alexander Pope, trying to discern what it might have been.
Intriguing, mysterious first sentence…
“Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprises us at first light, or they at least surprise those of us who’ve not been up to mischief in the dark.”
This sentence along with nice cover art, an award winning author and intricate plot lines and read it I must. Worth it? Yes! Harvest is well-worth reading to the end; really, like nothing I have ever read before. It passed the good-enough-not-to-get-thrown-across-the-room test! I have been known to throw a book (OK, gently drop it to the floor with a thud) if I finish it and I feel the author has manipulated the characters into a ridiculous ending.
Picture an idyllic manor village, perhaps 15th century, perhaps much earlier, the author never specifies, agrarian, isolated, remote. The diminishing population of villagers is content with their simple lot and lives together peaceably, growing barley and wheat on the manor lands. As the book opens it is harvest day, requiring every pair of hands to work. Two plumes of smoke are noticed at the far reaches of the village. One announces the arrival of newcomers; the other is the Master Kent’s barn burning. The villagers, superstitious and clannish fairy or hobbit-like creatures, would be alarmed by one fire, but two, and cannot help but connect the two occurrences. Same day a stranger, to be dubbed, Mr. Quill, arrives, and begins mapping the lands, counting the villagers and watching them. Immediately they are fearful and distrust his ‘menacing smile.’
Our narrator is Walter Thirsk, a likeable fellow in his middle years. Walter is a recent widower and a relative newcomer to the manor, first arriving as Master Kent’s manservant (not to be compared to Lord Grantham and Carson). Many villagers have ancestors dating back to the origins of the village. Cousins have married cousins. Walter Thirsk, despite his years on the manor still sticks out for his dark hair next to “…the many corn-haired blondes…”.
The interlopers number three: an older man, a younger man and a beguiling, witch-like woman wearing a velvet shawl. The villagers do not take kindly to anyone presuming that they can settle on the land. And wasn’t it these three newcomers that set fire to the master’s barn? The first encounter between the villagers and the newcomers leaves the woman wounded; later her head would be shaved.
“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, and dark and dangerous as belladonna berries.”
And yet, despite this description and her wounds, Walter is completely mesmerized by her, the Mistress Beldam. The two men are secured to the village pillory for a sentence of seven days of exposure to the elements, public humiliation and starvation. The men should not die on the pillory but they will surely suffer.
Adding to these disturbing events, Master Kent’s father-in-law, Master Jordan, arrives forcefully and loudly with a small cavalry in tow. This can only portend more bad news to come. And so it does. Master Jordan announces that all the lands will be turned over to sheep; this harvest was the last one.
Crace deftly and craftily, spins a yarn of what happens when fear seeps into a small crack. How a single person can ignite a group to a mob mentality. Feeding on mistrust, superstition and gossip, neighbor turns against neighbor in subtle and overt ways. Families become even more clannish. Several more startling events occur on the manor lands, further thickening the fear. There is sorcery and witchcraft at work as well. The forest fairy cap mushrooms are known for weaving a magic spell; too much barley ale and you do unaccountable and unspeakable actions. And isn’t Mistress Beldam a witch and roaming the forests all night?
Walter keeps his head (figuratively and literally) for the most part. Often in the right place at the right time, he inveigles his way into favor with the two masters, Kent and Jordan, and with Mr. Quill. But will this be enough to save him? Can the village be saved? With each hour, allegiances shift. Villagers, afraid for their lives and upset over the loss of their livelihood, begin leaving. Walter contemplates his own departure:
“Our snug and tiresome village has burst apart these last few days. Master Havoc and Lady Pandemonium have already set to work. We are a moonball that’s been kicked, just for the devilry, by some vexatious foot. Our spores are scattering. It seems I ought to scatter too.”
The ending is unpredictable. We, the readers, are privy to Walter’s ruminations on his future – should he stay or should he go – until the final sentence.
One part historical fiction; another part creepy mystery with a smidgen of fantasy, Harvest is a chilling tale of a pastoral village imploding. A village that seemed to be a model of harmonious living was actually on the verge of falling apart. Was it all an illusion? Is this how Rome fell or how the West was won from the Native Americans? Perhaps I extrapolate too much, but shouldn’t really good fiction set your imagination off to the wildest places?