Harvest by Jim Crace
Review by Miriam Sarin
Jim Crace’s Harvest is a provoking marriage of the mystical and the mundane. Set in the sixteenth century, Crace elegantly overcomes the potential disconnect of a different time, a different place, connecting us with his story through his use of vivid imagery and well-defined characters. He begins by drawing us into his earthy land of sweat and toil by painting pictures of marshland titled “The Bottom” then adding crude comments from the villagers, such as “Which bearded bachelor is far too friendly with his goat?” In its coarse, raw and rough tones, this unfamiliar world becomes tangible.
Against this backdrop, Crace then adds a current of fear. The villagers discover that their world of soil and crops is under the threat of change from a looming industry of wool. It is through this fear that Crace exposes his next theme: the mystical, the mysterious, the uncanny. The coupling of the earthy and the uncanny has a striking impact on the story. Their contrast causes the reader to feel unsettled, just as the villagers do, helping us to empathise with their experiences. This juxtaposition carries Harvest. Crace poetically paints his picture of the world, grounding it firmly, only to shake its foundations with the eerie introduction of Mistress Beldam.
However, it is here that Crace begins to lose my attention. His presentation of her character into the story poses such promise of oncoming chaos. She dances around the edge of the story like a shadow, stirring up fear and anxiety with all the bedlam her name suggests, to such an extent the villagers view her as a sorceress believing that, “Everything’s uncertain and unhinged because of her. She’s brought a curse on to our land, she’s blighted us.” As a reader, I found this exciting and anticipated some form of show-down between the characters at the peak of the story. Unfortunately, the meridian became disappointingly bathetic, fizzling in the drug-fuelled haze of the central character, Walter Thirsk, and I was left unsated and disappointed. As Anton Chekhov puts so aptly, “If you point out the gun on the wall in the first act, the audience will expect it to go off in the third.” In this instance, Mistress Beldam was our gun and did not go off. Or at least, if she did, she was firing blanks.
The richness of this piece lies in Crace’s manipulation of language. His use of alliteration is elegant, transforming well-crafted descriptions into near poetry. I especially enjoyed the use of the first person plural, “we” and its subsequent breakdown as Walter becomes more ostracized from the community. Walter refers to the villagers and himself as one entity, narrating, “We lift our heads as one and look towards the woods as one; we straighten up as one and stare at the sun.” Using the simple word “we”, to highlight the slow separation of Walter Thirsk from his society, Crace wields his language in an almost Shakespearian fashion, creating a beautiful piece of fiction which, despite the unfulfilled moments in the narrative, makes Harvest well worth the read.