Jim Crace (2013) Harvest Picador, London; 320 pp.; ISBN 978-0-33044566-5
This novel is narrated by Walter Thirsk, a farmer on the Jordan Estate somewhere in England. The hamlet where he lives is a day’s walk from the nearest church or inn and there are few visitors. The lord of the manor, Master Kent, is kindly. He and Walter were childhood friends and Walter worked as his servant before marrying a local woman and taking up farming. The small village has no name and we are not told the time or specific location, but we are in sixteenth century England as the commons are being enclosed and an ancient way of life is coming to an end.
The master’s cousin, who has title to the lands, is planning to turn the estate over to sheep farming. From Henry VIII on, the Tudors set up a regime of tariff protection and subsidies to build the wool industry. It is the sort of economic policy that gives modern free trade advocates apoplexy, but it laid the foundation for Britain’s wealth over the next few centuries, albeit at a human cost.
The novel opens the day after the harvest. Already there are signs of the old settled ways being disturbed. Someone has set fire to the master’s stables, a man engaged by the master is mapping the village, and some outsiders have arrived and set up residence. The latter are not welcome – the harvest is meagre enough and the local population has been dwindling because there are too many mouths to feed.
The culprits who set the fire are known, except to the master, but the villagers seek to shift the blame to the newcomers. The villagers are also fearful and distrustful of the strange man who is mapping the land and they wonder what he is about. The annual cycle that is just ending – sowing, harvest, gleaning, celebration – has been never-ending for those born and bred here but Walter understands that the old seasonal calendar is coming to an end and that the future will never be the same.
The newcomers are punished for the fire but they will seek revenge for the wrongs done to them. The master’s cousin arrives with a gang of men and it is clear that radical changes are on the horizon. They take an aggressive stance towards the villagers which leads to confrontation, but how effective can this be in the face of a power most of the villagers cannot comprehend?
Walter’s wife died and so he is no longer wedded to this place – in both senses of the term. He begins to consider ways out. Could he go into service with the peculiar man doing the mapping, resume his role as servant to Master Kent, or should he try his chances elsewhere? These questions begin to occupy much of his thoughts.
More misfortune and violence haunt the village and each household has to make a decision about its future. The ruminations that trouble Walter begin to take hold of everyone. Can the old ways survive or will the village be overwhelmed? The period in which this novel is set saw some of the most profound changes in rural life in England and the human dimension of these changes is explored in this engrossing and atmospheric story.
Those with wealth and power do not see the village or its traditions in terms of the social bonds, the seasonal character of the land or the culture that understands and celebrates the world in which it lives. To men with money the village is just a set of material assets, including people, that need to be re-configured in a way that will increase the wealth of a few. As in any age, the rich are ever willing to use threats and violence to get their way. Once you are a slave to greed, seeing people and the world around you as things to be manipulated, then cruelty and force become common sense.
The kindly master is seen as weak by his cousin but the villagers wait to see if he will defend their livelihoods or fall into line with the new regime. It will be a test of where his loyalties lie.
The descriptions of a long lost rural life, the details of the natural world and the relationships between the villagers are all depicted in rich and eloquent prose. You are quickly drawn into the world that Jim Crace creates and I found the story absorbing. With a small cast in a very small settlement Crace has examined the impact of a momentous period in English history that has echoes even in our modern age. Jim Crace is a prolific author but this is the first novel of his that I have read. I will now be seeking out the others, for this is a great author.