Harvest, by Jim Crace


Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Let’s start by considering the notion of “harvest” as it is presented in Jim Crace’s novel bearing that title, since the few days surrounding that event are the sole source of joy presented in the book. It has been a long, hard-working summer with hostile weather a constant threat to the crop that will keep the community of 58 souls fed for the next year and now it is time to complete the work: “If we hoped for sufficient grain to last the year, we’d have to deserve it with some sweat.”

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.

booker logo 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.


15 Responses to “Harvest, by Jim Crace”

  1. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I was aware when I started reading Harvest that Jim Crace had said this 11th novel would be his final one. (I should note that I have only read All That Follows, so I am hardly a Crace expert.) I had presumed that was a post-publication statement so I was a bit surprised when I finished the book and read the opening words of his acknowledgements:

    “I have enjoyed a fortunate career in books and publishing.”

    “I want to thank Pam Turton, Tom Crace, and Lauren Crace for letting me get on with the antisocial habit of writing in a happy, stimulating, and loving household.”

    As I said in the review, I finished the book most impressed with the way the author had captured the isolation and loneliness of the narrator and I’ll admit those two sentences (especially that “antisocial habit” phrase) raised another question: Is one of the allegorical interpretations possible for Harvest that of an author describing his own career?

    Like the narrator, all good authors are primarily observers – they are part of many communities but the “antisocial” nature of their work means they are not fully engaged with any of them. They participate, to be sure, but a better part of them is always engaged in observing just what is going on around them.

    Since that eventually gets expressed only in writing, even the most successful writer is always somewhat isolated from those around him – and I have known enough writers to appreciate that that often produces a loneliness that can only be expressed in the writing.

    The disintegration of a community. Outside threats, both small and large. Observing fear and prejudice – but addressing them through prose, rather than direct involvement. For some at least, those observations supply the raw material of the writer’s world.

    I can’t help but wonder if that was not one of the allegories that Crace was trying to capture here. As I said in the review, many other interpretations are certainly possible – but when I reread the novel, that is one possibility that I will be monitoring with high interest.


  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That sounds tremendous. I’ve only read one Crace so far, Quarantine, but I was impressed by it. I have his Being Dead (if I recall the title correctly) which I admit I find a rather forbidding prospect. I may break a rule though and read this ahead of that.

    It’s the first of the Booker list novels that’s tempted me so far. Well, discounting The Testament of Mary which I was planning to get but which your review rather put me off for the time being.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was not super-impressed with All That Follows but was aware that Crace had a very good reputation with a number of readers whose opinions I respect. My impression is that he is one of those authors who produce a hit-and-miss response with me — his work is risky enough that if the premise doesn’t strike a response early on the whole book leads to frustration.

      This novel did start slowly for me — he builds the foundations of the story very deliberately. Once I got into the rhythm of the book I found it most impressive. That’s probably why the opening of the final section left me frustrated at first since it was such a change in rhythm — in the final analysis, my attention needed that “jolt” of change.

      I’ll be interested if Harvest makes the Booker shortlist. I suspect it might be just a bit too literary. On the other hand, I have been impressed with the range of this year’s shortlist from those I have read so far (and they also have been of consistent high quality in the writing) so I don’t have much of a read on how the jury might lean.

      I’ve marked Quarantine down as my next Crace.


  3. Michael Says:

    Gerbrand Bakker’s books always whispers loneliness and a sense of emptiness.


  4. David Says:

    I thought this one was superb, and you’re right to say it suggests numerous interpretations. A few of the reviews when it came out talked about it having a biblical/mythical tone and I could certainly see that when reading it.
    Something about the feel of this book put me in mind of both Barry Unsworth’s ‘Morality Play’ and Ronan Bennett’s ‘Havoc in its Third Year’, both of which I liked a lot, so you’ve certainly made me intrigued about ‘Satantango’ if that too is in the same vein.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I would agree with the Morality Play comparison — and I haven’t read the Bennett.

      The prose does have a distinctive tone to it (that’s why my excerpts are so long) — I regarded that as part of Crace’s efforts to help the reader get into the overall rhythm of the book.

      Check out Max’s review of Satantango at Pechorin’s Journal — it was his book of the year and he gives it a more thorough review than I did here.


  5. queenofthepark Says:

    It is an excellent book. Your comments have really opened it up for me. Mine was a library copy and I feel I should go right back to the reservation queue!
    Recollections of Quarantine are hazy, but most positive. As for Bakker, I particularly enjoyed the Detour, again the loneliness, the unease the wonderfully wrought disquiet.

    Thanks so much for your generous and stimulating review, Kevin


  6. cbjames Says:

    You have thinking about starting to read Booker nominees again.

    This one reminds me of Gift of Stones which is about a stone age village surviving as makers of stones tools and weapons and what happens to them when bronze tools are developed.

    I’m sorry to hear that Mr. Crace is retiring.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I don’t know Gift of Stones but the premise sounds similar — all change does involve some loss. And returning to a simpler world for an author who wants to explore that (allegorically or not) is a useful device.

      I have found this year’s Booker longlist to be better than the last couple years. I am about halfway through now and even the ones that haven’t been personal favorites have been well-written and worth the effort.


  7. gaskella Says:

    I really enjoyed this novel, and I knew about Crace’s plan to move on to other things, so couldn’t help but read that into the book, along with the price of progress.


  8. Michael Says:

    Oh NO, the Booker shortlist includes Harvest AND The Testament of Mary.


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