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Harvest by Jim Crace, a contemporary British author, tells the story of the lives of villagers surrounding a remote farm and their struggle in adapting to changing times. The powerlessness of common peasants against the cruel and reckless behaviour of both nature and landowners is the central theme of the story.
The narrator of the events, Walter Thirsk, is a simple man and a hard worker. He’s a widower and there’s nothing special about him other than the fact that he considers himself to be a “milk brother” to the landowner Charles Kent, who is also a widower and a good-natured person.
The story starts with two outbreaks of fire. One coming from landowners hay stock and stable, and the other one, to the displeasure of everyone, coming from a hut acquired by a group of new settlers, two men and a woman. Immediately everyone blames the new settlers for the chaos caused by the fire and at once they decide to shave the woman’s head and put the men in shackles.
An unknown fear starts growing over the villagers, escalated by the arrival of a disabled map-maker, Philip Earle or as the villagers call him, Mr. Quill, and the landowners’ cousin Edmund Jordan, who has his own agenda. Later on, when the landowner’s mare is brutally slaughtered, the whole village is suspected by Jordan. The villagers,on the other hand, suspect that the woman (or Mrs. Beldam as they’ve nicknamed her) from the new settlers group is taking her own revenge. But all their efforts to catch her are in vain as she remains as elusive as ever.
The narrative is tender and mesmerizing, almost poetic at times. But what stands out is the authors playfully invented vocabulary such as longpurple, suffingale and eringe. The story touches on the primitive fear of anything new, which is hardwired in mankind. The villagers are actually aware (at least subconsciously) that they’ve been reckless in taking a swift decision against the new settlers, and this guilt plays a significant part later on in the story.
The first person account of the events paints a vivid picture and yet it never subterfuges into specifics. The voice of the narrator feels like it’s coming from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. As the end approaches, anarchy rules and the narrator of the story becomes haunted by his own demons.
Six different nationalities are represented on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. And despite the list’s multi-cultural feel, the bookies’ favourite is Jim Crace for Harvest, which he has said will be his final novel. If that indeed turns out to be the case, Crace is retiring on a high note.