Justine Jordan on a tale of dispossession and displacement that reaches beyond history
The Guardian, Thursday 14 February 2013
A common story … Detail of a harvesting scene circa 1577 from Holinshed’s Chronicles. Click for full image. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jim Crace's literary inheritance, he's said, is not so much the world of books as "the thousands of years of unwritten narrative, the oral tradition". His novels often reach beyond the limits of the historical record: to the advent of the bronze age in The Gift of Stones, to Christ's sojourn in the Judean desert in Quarantine, to the new dark age of a future America in The Pesthouse. Harvest, his latest novel, dramatises one of the great under-told narratives of English history: the forced enclosure of open fields and common land from the late medieval era on, whereby subsistence agriculture was replaced by profitable wool production and the peasant farmers dispossessed and displaced. "The sheaf is giving way to sheep", as Crace puts it here, and an immemorial connection between people and their local environment is being broken.
But how do you tell the story of a settlement too insignificant to have a name, and peasants whose only signatures are their scything styles? Crace needs an observant outsider, which is where Walter Thirsk comes in. Though the novel begins in the plural, as "we" are summoned from the harvest by ominous smoke over the manor house, Walter quickly establishes his individual voice. He came to the village in the service of Master Kent, who married the daughter of the manor 12 years ago; fell in love with a local; and has worked the land since. Both men are now widowers, and retain an uneasy familiarity dating back to boyhood, when Walter's mother suckled them both – "brothers in milk", but not family. Walter counts himself part of the village community, but – appropriately for a book that is all about power and belonging and ownership – will find himself alienated from gentlemen and labourers alike when the timeless certainties of village life are overturned. "I never was a local tree, grown in this soil from seed, to die where I was planted."
Several strangers broach the village: two men and a dangerously alluring woman, already dispossessed by enclosure elsewhere; the new lord of the manor Master Jordan, come to reclaim his family property from Master Kent, who as a widower without heirs has no claim on the manor house he married into; Mr Quill, employed to map and measure the area to prepare it for the enclosure that Master Kent hoped to introduce by consent and Master Jordan is only too happy to push through by force. The villagers' suspicion and scapegoating of the trio cowering in a thrown-together shack on the common land sets in train a series of violent events that empties the village and only smoothes the path to enclosure. Not, as Walter realises, that change could ever have been averted: "Dissent is never counted; it is weighed. The master always weighs the most." Master Jordan promises to provide Christ as well as capitalism: he will pay for a church to be built in the village at last, with a bell to summon those permitted to remain to prayer – and hurry them to work.
Crace brings his signature combination of atmosphere and exactitude to every aspect of this far‑off world, from landscape and ploughing to domestic interiors and the taste of magic mushrooms (a "reasty mix of horse's hoofs, burnt hair and candle wax"). The prose is extraordinary: rich yet measured, estranged and familiar, both intimate and austere. The narrative, though, proceeds by odd fits and starts, tracking back and forwards in time as Walter, struggling to resolve the train of consequence, reconstructs past events and considers future possibilities, guesses at others' motivations, resolves to act, hesitates, does not. It becomes gradually apparent that he is absent from nearly all the key scenes, as though the book is enacting his own exclusion from the community to which he believes he belongs.
There are many mysteries and flights of fancy in the novel, but few answers. In the end Walter is most closely allied with Mr Quill, the romantic mapmaker, who – like the storyteller in The Gift of Stones – is excluded from the world of practical work by his damaged arm. Walter also damages his hand, forcing him to abandon the toil of the harvest for intellectual labour helping Quill to chart the area. Quill's map gives Walter a different perspective on his world: not only a bird's-eye view, but an abstract representation of something previously unmediated by anything other than his own senses. "I have my blues," he thinks defensively, as he watches Quill mix up colours and remembers various skies he's seen. The map is "effortless: a lie. He hasn't captured time ... No man has ever seen this view."
Throughout the novel the certainty of the land, the "busy, kindly, scented universe of crops and the unerring traces of its calendar", is set against the human urge to shape the world into stories, to guess and theorise and surmise. Stories grounded in the landscape also loom large, in customs such as choosing the gleaning queen when the harvest is brought in, or bumping heads against boundary stones to affirm the limits of the local world. What will change with enclosure is that sense of balance: "This land," Master Kent says, "has always been much older than ourselves ... Not any more." The environmental crisis we are facing now is on a global as well as a local level. Harvest can be read in mythical, even biblical terms, but the physical and emotional displacement of individuals and communities at its heart remains as politically resonant today as it was at the time.