Harvest – Jim Crace speaks through time. (Book Review)

Wheat – like men and women – benefits from being crushed.

To be without the words to say it, is to be inhuman.  Jim Crace has claimed that Harvest is his final novel which means this is the end of writings that seek to give voice to the voiceless in history. Harvest is a style of first hand experience, according to Jim Crace of the English living through the time when wheat gave way to the sheep, and human life was despairingly cheap. The novel doesn’t say, but sheep were introduced to Britain between 50 AD and 5000 AD, so one presumes this to be the time of the novel, during the medieval period.   The sheep represented a new kind of farming, no longer subsistence; the farm was now a factory of sorts, rather than the life force for a small village. Farmers become dispossessed and a significant moment in history occurs as human beings are formally being separated from the land.

Say it, say it now, say the word, I urge him silently. I don’t have to be a swift or kite to know about the world and how its changing – changing shape as Master Kent suggests – and to hear the far-off bleating of in coming animals that are neither cows, nor pigs, nor goats, that are not brethren.  I know at once; I’ve feared this ‘Yes’ ever since the mistress died. The organisation to all of our advantages that the master has in mind – against his usual character and sympathies, against his promises – involves the closing and engrosment of our fields with walls and hedges, ditches, gates. He means to throw a halter around our lives. He means the clearing of our common land. He means the cutting down of trees. He means this village, far from everywhere, which has always been a place for horn, corn and trotter and little else, is destined to become a provisioner of wool. The word that he and no one dares to whisper let alone cry out is sheep.

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Economy is what the village is about, and yet it is not Crace’s style when he speaks with a poetic lyrical voice that is born more of folklore than the laying down of facts. The village is small, and everyone easily identifiable by mannerisms, ways of walking and certain behaviours. The events of the destruction of the village take place over one shocking week, destroying a way of life that had thrived for hundreds of years.  Knowledge is instinctive and tied to the land, and any sort of interference with this wisdom be it superstition or facts, immediately renders the villages powerless, weighted under the appearance of ignorance. This is part of what Crace does so well, the innate village wisdom is true, but so tied to the land that it must transform with it. It is not written down, it cannot be examined.  Knowledge and superstition blend without an interest in their separation. Crace skillfully makes the villagers at times seem like brilliant fieldsman, businessmen, centuries of wisdom flowing through their veins and at others, childish and frightened.

I know my teasing neighbours. Their suspicion of anyone not born within these boundaries is unwavering. 

Harvest’s narrator is part of the key to the novel’s pace. He is a village dweller, and yet because he is only there by marriage (he was an original worker of one of the landowners) seen to be different by his dark hair against their light hair, he still feels like an outsider, despite his living there for many decades. His wife is now dead, and he has a relationship of sorts with a widower and this in itself has produced a measure of envy and suspicion in the other villagers. Or at least he imagines it might – there is never any evidence that this is the case, only a built up possibility of what his neighbours may have against him if any of them take it into their minds to expel him, something he both fears and expects as he is and always will be an outsider. It is his portrait, infused with his relief, fears and superstitions that give Harvest its weight and access to a kind of timelessness.

Image taken from The Independent.

Image taken from The Independent.

His joke, I think, is this: we are the sheep, already here, and munching at the grass. There’s none more pitiful than us, he thinks.

It’s not obvious from Harvest what Crace’s point is in highlighting the village life of one individual, even if it does involve dramatic events that will lead to change that heralds a new dawn. Crace seems to be reinforcing the notion that human life was cheap, but that this value is determined by the existing way of thinking.  Poignant is the arrival of sheep, because it is the existence of the animal itself that prevents the sheep like behaviour of the villages inhabitants;  There is only room for so many sheep on this farm, Crace seems to be saying. With the arrival of this breed, the human’s have to step up their game. Emblematic of the approaching enlightenment is the arrival of the cartographer Mr Quill who will make a map forcing the village inhabitants to see themselves as part of a larger picture for the first time. Adaptation is akin to acceptance of change, not fighting for a way of life that had no justification except for the feeding and perpetuation of people who acted as sheep under the new-found control of organised religion, and placed responsibility for all important matters in the hands of the wealthy. Strangely, our protagonist doesn’t even know how to be distressed at his loss, so shallow is his world. Villagers can neither articulate nor defend their way of life, they merely stare wide-eyed into the oncoming vehicle of their annihilation. Without words, without perspective, without the disciplines of the intellect, there is nothing but the wisdom of the earth and that belongs to the earth.

Crace reveals to us that the lack of relationships with their own words, their thoughts and their culture made these people some of the most vulnerable in history.

Harvest is available here. 

It was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

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