"Harvest" by Jim Crace

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You learn in the first paragraph of Harvest that Jim Crace will be telling his story of an Old English village in a long series of lovely lilting iambs, a sweet rhythm carrying an ancient Anglo Saxon vocabulary of farm and manor and blood and dirt and death. I found myself reading slowly, enjoying the language as though I were reading a long poem written in feudal England. Surely that was the author’s intent, and he’s brought it off with assurance and style. This is a beautiful book.

We’re told in this scop’s tale about an English village so parochial and isolated that no one’s bothered to build a church there - the land has been set aside, but the only thing that’s standing on the site is the cross-shaped pillory. One day as the harvest concludes, strangers arrive, and with them upheaval, never a good thing for country villagers set in their seasonal ways. Once the change starts it rushes to its conclusion, wreaking its paroxysm in the space of only several days. Along the way, we’re treated up close to the ugliness of human nature: greed, jealousy, cruelty, betrayal. A story, no matter where or when its setting, features the fraught interactions of humans, right?

The remoteness of this story in time and place sharpens these interactions and relays their effects through the laconic observations of the Walt the narrator. Mr. Crace does a beautiful job of deploying the Anglo Saxon tongue in his story, but sets one Latinate word out for review, italicizing it when he does so: subterfuge.
It’s a word Walt has recently learned - his literacy matches his lord’s - and he uses it in its fullest sense. For in its roots: subter, meaning beneath, and fugere, to flee, lay its complete meaning: fleeing in secret. People flee in secret and in the open in this story, running before the onslaught of profit and progress, so called.

The charms of Harvest commend it to your attention: the showing-off of Anglo Saxon words to their greatest iambic glory; the glimpses of natures all too human as change sweeps through and destroys a beautiful countryside and a way of life; the homage to English before the Conquest. I don’t mean to harp on the language and diction to the detriment of the story; each of these is reason enough to read Harvest. Recommended in very high terms.

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