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Jim Crace plants unsettling seed of progress in ‘Harvest’

Author Jim Crace and the cover of his novel, "Harvest".
(Andrew Bainbridge / Random House)

Harvest
A Novel

Jim Crace
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 208 pp., $24.95

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Jim Crace has always been something of a literary outlier. His novels can appear apocalyptic, but really, he’s a humanist at heart, interested in the way that people — complex, contradictory, sometimes working against their own best interests — navigate the territory of a complex, and often menacing, universe.

The magnificent “Quarantine” (1997), perhaps his best-known effort, re-imagines Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, not as morality tale or parable but as a human story, in which Christ is most remarkable for having been, simply, a man. His follow-up, the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning “Being Dead” (1999), opens with the deaths of its protagonists, framing its story in retrospect, as their bodies decompose.

Even his 2007 novel “The Pesthouse,” which takes place in the wake of Armageddon (“This used to be America,” the book begins), ends with a measure of hope or at least perseverance; for his characters, there is no other choice but to live in their own time.

For all its darkness, his storytelling is marked equally by a joy in invention, a sense that it is the writer’s job to remake the world. Beginning with his debut novel, “Continent” (1986), Crace has invented epigraphs, cities, landscapes, even an entire land mass. The idea, of course, is the first faith of fiction: What matters most is what we hold in our minds.

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Crace’s 11th novel, “Harvest,” fits neatly into such a vision, although the landscape it describes is small and self-contained. Set in a period that resembles the Middle Ages, it takes place in a small manor village, where neither country nor custom has changed since memory began. The rhythms are agricultural: planting in the spring and reaping at the end of summer, keeping stores to survive the winter months. The crop is barley, a source of bread and ale and also of the rituals that bind the villagers, all 58 of them, to the widowed manor dweller, Master Kent.

"[O]ur ancient understanding is that, though we are only the oxen to his halter, it is allowed for us to be possessive of this ground and the common rights that are attached to it,” explains the novel’s narrator, a man named Walter Thirsk. What he’s talking about is land, which holds everyone here. “There’s not a season set aside for pondering and reveries,” Thirsk tells us. "… Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools.”

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Still, even in the village, times are changing — or maybe it’s that the world is pressing in. The novel begins with a pair of threats: two plumes of smoke, the first a sign of newcomers and the second of a fire at the master’s hay loft.

Both are harbingers of trouble, particularly once the new arrivals are blamed for the conflagration at the stable and given a week in public pillory. That they had nothing to do with it is beside the point: "[I]t is not likely that our visitors, once their seven days are served, will want to set up home among us anyway,” Walter argues. “We’ve not endeared ourselves to them. … So maybe it is wise for all of us to hold our tongues for the time being and let them soak up all the blame.”

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Here, Crace sets up the conflict of the novel rather neatly: between the old ways and the new ways, the village and whatever lies outside. Walter knows a little bit about that. Along with Master Kent, he too is an outsider; they arrived together, 12 years before, when the latter married into the family that owns the land. It’s a terrific detail, setting up a narrative in which divided loyalties — or the perception of divided loyalties — are as important as anything that anyone actually does. At issue is trust, and how easily it can be eroded.

As with Crace’s other novels, “Harvest” is deftly written, in language — formal, slightly archaic even — that reflects the setting it describes. It’s also tightly plotted; less than a week passes from the moment smoke is sighted until the book’s fateful outcome, and yet once underway, we have the sense that everything is inevitable. From the newcomers to Edmund Jordan, Master Kent’s cousin by marriage who has come to lay claim to the manor and its lands, the village is under siege, but nowhere more, Crace wants us to understand, than from itself. Its complacency, its smug satisfaction in the eternal rituals of the season have left it open to attack, unaware of what’s outside.

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In some respects, this gives “Harvest” an allegorical quality; the villagers’ resistance to the newcomers occasionally recalls our ongoing debate around immigration, while Jordan’s plans to remake the village brand him as a vulture capitalist, looking to make economies and maximize profits, regardless of the traditions he upends.

Yet as in “Quarantine,” Crace’s real concern is his characters, the way that, like all of us, they make mistakes and act from weakness, and turn on one another when things go wrong. "[T]welve years here is not enough to make me feel utterly at home,” Walter acknowledges. "… I’m not a product of these commons but just a visitor who’s stayed. And now that these latest visitors have come … I am unnerved.”

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That’s a telling line, not only for what it suggests about the world of “Harvest” but also because of what it may say about Crace himself. He’s been hinting at retirement since 2008 or so, but in many ways this book feels like a summing up.

There is the breakdown of community, the narrator as outcast, the dissolution at the novel’s end. There are the acknowledgments, which refer to “a fortunate career in books and publishing.” There is his response to an inquiry about this, via email: “I have no plans to write another novel. ‘Harvest’ feels like the last in line. But I do have plans for another book (of essays) and hopes for a stage play.”

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Crace has never been an autobiographical writer, but I can’t help thinking of Walter, also in the act of moving on. “This is my heavy labor now,” he says. “I have to leave behind these common fields. … I have to carry on alone until I reach wherever is awaiting me, until I gain wherever is awaiting us.”

david.ulin@latimes.com

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