Monday, 31 March 2014

Book Review: Harvest by Jim Crace

Literary prizes do not normally influence my choice of books but when I was given the chance to read and review Jim Crace's Harvest for the Mumsnet book club the fact that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize intrigued me to read a book that I wouldn't normally choose for myself.

As soon as you start reading you understand why it ended up on the aforementioned shortlist: the prose is, without question, sublime. Crace vividly brings to life a small community that undergoes a revolutionary change over the course of a week.  We aren't told exactly when and where the story is set but it's fair to say it's somewhere in England at some point between the 16th and 19th century when fields throughout England began to be enclosed for farming.

Narrated from the perspective of Walter Thirsk, the story begins with the ominous appearance of three outsiders, quickly followed by more newcomers who may or may not be connected. Walter himself was once an outsider, having arrived in the small community with his master who married the lady of the manor. This unique position both benefits Walter and puts him at a disadvantage as he navigates the events that unfold over the week.

Strangers, outsiders, rumours of change and accusations of witchcraft stir-up suspicions, accusations and destructive actions that wreak devastation on a community that has lived happily and peacefully for generations.

This is a historical novel and it's clear how much research has gone into it. I definitely felt more enlightened after reading it and glad that I live in easier, more convenient modern times - the description of the 'turf and turd' made certain of that. But it wasn't just the physical hardship of the times that touched me; the lack of power and control that people had - even the fortunes of Master Kent, the most powerful man at the beginning of the story turn out to be precarious.

Despite the beautiful writing and the compelling plotline, it felt like there was something missing from Harvest. The lack of pace was definitely a problem for me, but that of course is a very personal preference.  There was plenty of drama to the story but for some reason it didn't feel particularly dramatic. The overwhelming emotion Harvest left me with was sadness; sadness that a whole community and the lives of individuals could so easily be destroyed. Perhaps this was Crace's intention.

I would never have chosen this book myself and although it was not my usual style or pace of book I did enjoy it so thanks Mumsnet for taking me out of my literary comfort zone!

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