Friday, 11 October 2013

Counting down to the Man Booker: Day Three - Harvest

Day three brings us the generally accepted favourite favourite to win, Jim Crace's "Harvest." But did we agree? Read on to find out...

E said: I haven't read any Jim Crace before, although I understand he is already a rather celebrated author with a number of prizes under his belt. I do wonder whether knowing it was everyone's (and by everyone, I mostly mean The Guardian) "favourite" to win coloured my views whilst reading it.

Harvest tells the story of a man called Walter in an unnamed village and the events that unfold over the course of a mere seven days following the arrival of a number of strangers to a previously closeted community. But, really, it is telling more than Walter's story, - I think it is telling a general story of what it may have been like for people when enclosures (sheep farming) were introduced in Britain. I remember learning about it in history at school and realising what a huge impact it had on your average villager, astonished by the devastation it caused - while you may need twenty men to plough a field, you only need one shepherd to watch a flock. The consequences were life changing for so many. The fact that Crace leaves the village unnamed for the entire novel (although it's quite short actually), seems significant - seems to be stating that this isn't about the individuals, it is about more.

Walter Thirsk is not a villager at heart. He moved, like his Master, Master Kent, to this village about twelve years ago. He had thought that he felt at home here, but as the novel unfolds he becomes more and more accutely aware that he is still an outsider, he is still displaced. The new faces to the visitors, also strangers, may have more in common with him than he wishes to believe at the beginning: the mysterious Mistress, her unnamed husband and father-in-law, and the deformed Mr Quill. Walter finds himself bound quite quickly to Mr Quill, and this sets him further apart from rural village life, which he is aware of, but not bold enough to do anything about. All these strangers (apart from Master Jordan, the cousin of Walter's master) do not share their real names. So who is Harvest really about, where is it really set?

That is the beauty of the novel - it is about anyone, anywhere, any time during the 16th century. But, larger than that, it is about enstrangement and being an outsider, of being too afraid to seize life with two hands and give it everything it has got, of the powerlessness of watching your life fall apart - at
any time. It can be about anyone. That sounds a strange thing to say about a novel rooted in a specific historic event (the introduction of enclosures), but that is the hypnotic effect of Jim Crace's prose. It feels like he could be writing to you, writing for you. Walter Thirsk is in all of us: the loneliness, the sense that you can never fit in, will never live up to your own expectations.

It is a very "literary" book. The writing is smooth and flowing, and some of the prose seems almost poetic. It ebbs, setting and moving like the seasons that govern the characters' lives. A lot is made of the weather, which would've been something the rural village life would have been governed by; Jim Crace also uses portents of stormy weather (that does not come) to remind the reader, as though we need reminding, that this story is not going to end well.

Although set over a mere seven days, it is quite a slow moving book somehow - if that is possible! Not in a negative way, but the nature of Jim Crace's writing means that you cannot speed through it.

This is a good choice for the Booker Prize and I would not be at all surprised if it won. It would make, I think, a worthy winner; I'm not sure how much I
enjoyed it per se, but I'm not sure you are meant to enjoy it. I certainly appreciated it. It is beautifully written, wonderfully crafted, a real work of literary art, and, I think, the sort of thing that the judges look for in the winners. 

J said: Jim Crace's Harvest is really a very well written book.

Of this year's Booker shortlist its words are the most carefully chosen. All of it is the thoughts and observations of Walter Thirsk, who although the newest inhabitant of the village, is also the last one left when disasters strike during the course of a harvest week. The short sentences and occasional archaisms suggest a late medieval way of speech, while actually not impeding easy reading. Casual cruelties are carried out without the perpetrators coming over as cruel people: they do these things because they see them as necessary, or they are too lazy or afraid to do otherwise, and I found this believable and a little chilling.

The basis of the story is that commercial 'necessity' causes the owners of the village to enclose the land to bring in sheep, and the havoc and hardship this brings about. We are more familiar with the Scottish enclosures, I guess because they were often more recent, and so can be seen as acts of callous colonialism, but in the seventeenth century (I'm guessing, the date is never stated) these things were carried out by English people on people that they knew well. The hardship and cruelty is no different, but the callousness may have been of a different order because of the proximity and common language.

I think this is my Booker winner so far, though not for me the most enjoyable or worthwhile reading. It is the skill with words that gives it that edge, and why I think it should win. 

A said: This read beautifully - poetic and crafted words and a well organised story with wonderful lyrical language. However ultimately I just didn't really want to read it and didn't find it that enjoyable. It's the story of an English village some time in the past around the 16-17th century over the space of their 7 days of harvest. It details a horrific and sad tale of the dark and cruel side of human nature and its this that made it an unenjoyable read for me. It needed some lightness and hope within it rather than the fear and suspicion that really dominated the story. I guess it might actually win the Booker but its not a comforting tale in any sense.

Have we found the Booker winner? Next update tomorrow - three down and three to go!

Read our previous reviews here:
Day One - A Testament of Mary  
Day Two - We Need New Names 

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