I’m instinctively a schematic writer. I want to make moralistic points. I have a purpose. So if you encounter a stone on page one of the novel, then you can be damn sure it’s not there by chance. It’s going to show up weighing down a metaphor, on page thirty, and it’s going to crop up again on page two hundred fifty with a moral attached. – Jim Crace, The Paris Review
You will encounter a stone in Jim Crace’s latest novel; many stones, in fact, and fields, and furrows, and forests – indeed, most of the flora and much of the fauna that attach to an English agricultural community long, long before the advent of industrialization, though in the shadow of its looming presence. And they will have morals attached like sinkers.
His 11th novel, Harvest tells the tale of a small feudal village set in an unspecified spot at an unspecified point in time; long enough ago, in any case, that “manor house” and “master” are words of common currency.
Small, secluded, and self-reliant, this village “far from everywhere” has the appearance of an agrarian idyll. Here, the rhythms of sowing and reaping and wintering have gone on unaltered and unquestioned for generations; here, nature in its beauty, and its might, predominates. But its seclusion is also its weakness: It is inbred and inward-looking, its “frowning” inhabitants, “fearful, proud and dutiful,” look warily at strangers and snub the new in any form. “Beer and bacon’s what matters here,” says narrator Walter Thirsk, not contentedly, but resignedly.
Though the unnamed community (“It is just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land”) is at least a day away from any human settlement, the world makes its presence felt in the form of four strangers, whose advent as the novel begins is a menace to the order of their days. A smiling gentleman surveys them at work in the fields, mapping their surroundings to unknown (and therefore suspicious) ends, and a small band of itinerants, two men and a woman, have set up camp in the forest. When a fire destroys the manor’s dovecote, the trio is unjustly blamed, the men are clapped in pillory, and all three are branded with shaven heads. It is the first in a series of dominoes whose toppling will obliterate a way of life.
Adding to the uncertainty is the arrival, soon after, of the manor lord’s cousin by marriage – “a man of blunt authority,” Thirsk calls him – who will inherit the manor and its lands.
A single-minded advocate of Progress and Prosperity – “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” is his clarion call – Master Jordan, as he is known, has great plans for the place: Under his design what was a farming community will become a sheep-tending community, the wool slated for the (far-off) clothing-manufacturing trade. He will chop down their trees, enclose their commons, plant grass in their fields, and fence off everything in sight; he will make the plow redundant and he will destroy a way of life. He is, in short, the prototype of Corporate Man, the Chainsaw Al of his day. (Even the jargon is intact: “We will sadly need to make economies,” he says. The “sadly” is note-perfect.)
Crace, who in a wide-ranging body of work is best known for The Pesthouse, a post-apocalyptic vision of America 200 years in the future, and Quarantine, a re-creation of Christ’s 40 days in the desert, is an avowed non-believer (“I’m a very hard-line post-Darwinist atheist”), and we must take him at his word, despite the plethora of Christian symbols in the book. Which leaves us to wonder why he has written what amounts to a parable, almost quaint in its archaic diction and tone.
If you like your stories with an epic flavour, and don’t mind archetypes for characters, Harvest is for you. But there’s something to be said for the straightforward realism of such works as Being Dead, Crace’s 1999 novel that begins with the brutal killing of a middle-aged couple and continues with a microscopic examination of their decomposing corpses, the narrative all the while echoing down through the 30 years of their relationship. It is far less ghoulish than it sounds, and much more compelling.
“We are plain and do not try to complicate our lives,” Thirsk says of his community. But the complications come, as we have seen, and heavy-handed analogies may not be the best way to meet them.
Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto editor and writer, writes frequently for Globe Books.