Reap and gossip. That’s the rule. On harvest days, anyone who’s got a pair of legs and arms can expect to earn supper with unceasing labor. Our numbers have been too reduced of late to allow a single useful soul to stay away. […] The broadest shoulders swing their sickles and their scythes at the brimming cliffs of stalks; hares, partridges and sparrows flee before the blades; our wives and daughters bundle up and bind the sheaves, though not too carefully — they work on the principle of ten for the commons and one for the gleaning; our creaking fathers made the lines of stooks, the sun begins to dry what we have harvested. Our work is consecrated by the sun. Compared to winter days, let’s say, or digging days, it’s satisfying work, made all the more so by the company we keep, for on such days all the faces we know and love (as well as those I know but do not like entirely) are gathered in one space and bounded by common ditches and collective hopes.
The work of the harvest is concluded with a night of feasting: meats and treats from the Master’s stock, much dancing and even more ale. That evening concludes with the selection of “our Lady of the Harvest. She’ll be our Gleaning Queen.” On the following day, she will lead the community on an even happier day: the gleaning of the one sheaf in 11 that has been left in the field, for it is this grain that will be the source of the porridge and home-made ale that are the only “luxuries” residents have to take the edge off winter’s harshness.
Even before describing those few days of joy, however, author Crace has introduced a number of disquieting elements. Two began with plumes of smoke that rose over the tiny community the night of the harvest. One came from just outside the bounds of the community:
It says, New neighbors have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.
The other came from Master Kent’s place and the community originally feared it was the manor house itself. When they rush to the scene, they discover it was his hay lofts and stable roofs — someone has set fire to “his pretty, painted dovecote”. The narrator of the novel is fairly certain it was a trio of troublesome community youth, brash under the influence of fairy cap mushrooms. He is out of step with his neighbors — they are convinced it was the intruders on the border.
Less obvious, but perhaps more troubling in the long run, was the presence of a stranger at the final day of harvesting, whom the working people dub Mr. Quill:
A gentleman we did not recognize was watching us reduce our barley field to stub; a visitor, a rare event, exciting and unnerving. We mowed with scythes; he worked with brushes and quills. He was recording us, he said, or more exactly marking down our land, at Master Kent’s request. He tipped his drawing board for anyone that asked and let them see the scratchings on his chart, the geometrics that he said were fields and woods, the squares that stood for cottages, the ponds, the lanes, the foresting.
Nothing is quite what it seems to be in Harvest so let me just indicate a few details to those ominous harvest events that Crace reveals as he develops his picture of the tiny community. The two men and one woman who built that rudimentary hut and lit the fire to establish legal residence just outside the bounds are an external threat that residents understand, because they are of the same stock — indeed, in short order the two men are placed in the literal stocks that represent the community’s version of gaol. Those fairy-cap-eating youth are just the tip of an iceberg — the tightly-knit community is beginning to disintegrate from internal tensions.
And Mr. Quill is indeed the most serious threat of all. Master Kent is master only through marriage. His wife has died and an urban cousin related by blood has been found (it’s hardly Downton Abbey, but the primogeniture principle is the same). Using the land to support a marginal grain-farming settlement doesn’t interest him — he intends to convert the land to more lucrative sheep herding which means support for far fewer people.
Crace spends the first third of Harvest developing that picture. In the second third, all those threats come to violent ends — by the time this section concludes, the community residents have fled, both masters are headed off to get the sheep that will take over the property and the narrator is left to oversee it in virtual isolation.
That’s just a sketch of plot but I hope it provides enough evidence to support the assertion that Harvest is a novel that allow for many allegorical interpretations, e.g. didn’t the UK’s coal mining communities or North America’s rust belt cities face exactly the same issues in the late 20th century? Or how is globalization any more disruptive than converting grain farming land to sheep pastures?
While I was interested enough to contemplate those possible allegories, my positive personal response to the novel came from an entirely different thread: the increasing isolation and loneliness of the narrator. We learn early on that he arrived as the manservant of Master Kent — while the two are on good terms, there is certainly a level of isolation in the class relationship as one is clearly master, the other a servant. He left the master’s manor when he married a local girl, who died some years ago. Despite his continued presence in the community, since her death he has been regarded with suspicion as an outsider who may be a spy for more powerful interests, i.e. the master.
A couple of personal accidents as the plot unfolds mean the narrator is on the sidelines for the “action” of the novel, but still very much present as an observer, which increases his personal isolation. All he can do is help Mister Quill, for whom he acquires substantial respect — indeed he harbors a dream that he will be able to escape to another world as Mister Quill’s assistant when this assignment is finished.
For the first part of the final section I was frustrated by the bleakness of the story but began to fix more and more on the utter loneliness of the narrator and his response. The collapse of the community is mirrored by the collapse of his own limited certainties — the few things that he could hang on to have all literally disappeared.
That is only one interpretation of the novel, but for me it is a powerful one. The portrayal of the collapse of the community was almost as impressive — on a second read, it might be even more moving. A number of visitors here read more translated fiction than I do but throughout the book I was reminded of a number of “non-English” comparisons. The portrayal of the community — and more important, its collapse — reminded me of the settlement at the centre of Laszlo Krasznahorki’s Satantango, a novel that has become more impressive in memory than it was when I just finished it. And the narrator’s loneliness and frustration took me back to Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, another very impressive book. Crace’s Harvest compares very favorably with both.
I have another possible allegorical interpretation that I intend to explore when I reread Harvest. It is an even more speculative notion than what I have outlined here and could be seen as a misleading spoiler — if you don’t care about spoilers, or have read Harvest, I have sketched it out in the first comment following this post. I’d emphasize that until I reread the book it is more an intriguing idea than a firm thought on how the book might be read. If you have read the novel, I’d be interested whether you think it has any value at all.