Thursday, 12 June 2014

Shallow Brown: a rural idyll left empty in Jim Crace's Harvest

Harvest augurs Autumn

I was intrigued by Jim Crace’s Harvest before I picked it up, having witnessed the author announcing casually on stage (at the Man Booker Prize shortlist readings) that he wrote this ostensibly historical novel without doing any research whatsoever. Certainly this book is set in the past, but Crace is deliberately vague about the year and the actual location, except that it is a rural village. This is exactly what I am doing with my first short story collection, and I have worried sometimes about mucking about with bits of pre-industrial Britain without committing to any of their specific times and spaces. Harvest looked like an opportunity to learn from a master.

It is a strange book. What Crace has done with language is superb, as satisfying as sitting down to a 16th century harvest meal in 2014, and tasting the earth and the human toil in every spoonful of wholegrain. He sticks to the language of the land, of arable farming, and fills his phrases with Anglo-Saxon words as well as pleasing vocabulary for those of us who fetishise the pastoral past a little. His descriptions of the crop, the harvest and the landscape about the village are excellent nature writing, which in fiction I find far more appealing than the self-consciously knowledgeable elegies of actual nature writers. But if I hadn’t heard him say himself that he didn’t research, I would sometimes have suspected him of succumbing to the temptation of showing off his learning. There are passages spelling out processes, such as the making of vellum, which in the end contribute little to the story. This might be a short story writers’ complaint, however.

As well as choosing his words carefully, Crace has chosen certain phrase structures which lend a heavy, unavoidable rhythm to the prose, which rarely breaks. The result is a slow and steady pace which is suited in places but never really changes, even when drama is ramping up, such that tension is lost and the reader begins to wonder how to distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t in the narrator’s version of events.

The narrator himself is also problematic. At first I thought this was deliberate, believing I perceived an Ishiguro-esque refusal of this quiet outsider to tell us what he really feels, what is really going on. Events take such turns that I expected this, like the pace, to break at some point, and the sunshine of revelation to break through this cloudy voice, but it didn’t happen. Even though the narrator had already lost his wife, and goes on to lose much more, I never really felt his pain or loneliness. He didn’t turn out to be anything more or less than he first seemed, and this was somehow disappointing. Whilst I don’t demand that so-called essential of good story-telling – that a character must change, or learn, in some way – I found I noticed that this one didn’t. The noticing was not a good sign.

This peculiar blankness in the text was only compounded by the fact that almost all of the significant action takes place off-stage. Women and a child are tortured, people die, buildings are burned and friendships ruined by suspicion and allegations, but the narrator is rarely witness, and so we receive all this second-hand or through sinister hints. The latter I liked – often what you imagine is worse than what you are shown, after all – but Crace did this to such an extent that sometimes it felt like a cop-out. Again, another tenet of writing sprang to mind: show, don’t tell. There was an awful lot of telling here. The most problematic element in this was the appearance, and then disappearance for most of the book, of the woman described in the cover blurb as ‘dangerously magnetic.’ She seems to exert a malignant power over the narrator and his fellow men, and is implicated in the havoc wreaked, yet she is barely there, even in the imagination of the supposedly bewitched narrator.

Crace has done something wonderful in Harvest, paying a kind of homage to a place that never existed and doing so in writing so careful and gorgeous it could be a prose poem. Its downfall is that it could be almost exactly that: in retrospect the plot feels almost incidental, and the impressions I am left savouring are ones of physical landscapes, not emotional ones. Interestingly, this is precisely a problem I often face with my own writing project, and so reading Harvest was indeed a lesson, and I will take heed.

P..S 'Shallow Brown' is a folk song - you can hear Percy Grainger's wonderful arrangement on Youtube here.