The recent period of economic crisis and its impact on the world, the shifts in power and the new areas of enterprise have spawned a huge quantity of non-fiction books but, as yet, not quite as many novels. Perhaps this is because fiction is so particular and the crisis is so generalised, or because fiction is supposed to take a wide, historical view, and the present is too close.
Jim Crace's striking new novel (he says it will be his last) takes on the present by grasping at its root. Harvest is set at a distant point in English history, apparently the early 16th century. On the surface this is very much not a book about now - it's a historical novel, complete with a plot that at times contorts itself to fit known facts rather than being a purely imaginative exercise - but its concerns are contemporary. Set around the time of English land reforms now referred to generally as "the enclosures", it describes a moment of deep conflict that continues to resonate today. In cities, processes of gentrification clear out the poor to make way for investment-grade housing; all over the world, migrant populations are forced away from home to where the work is. Examples of modern-day enclosures are manifold and often controversial, but the events described in Harvest are a distant mirror.
There's a lot packed into the plot, although it unfolds in a short space of time. Strangers arrive in an English village, and are accused of arson. In an apparently unconnected event, the landowner's tyrannical cousin arrives to make good his claim on the land. From the fabric of these two occurrences, Crace stitches together a plot that compresses what was probably in reality a gradual process of disenfranchisement into just a few days, as the villagers' way of life is first threatened then destroyed.
The novel's distinctive narration belongs to a villager, Walter Thirsk, who witnesses the destruction of the place he has made his home: “the Village”. This unnamed place is vividly imagined, not in terms of geographic particulars but in its minute, lived details: “The village has been freckled by the chaff. The service trees between our dwellings and the gleaning field are still embroidered with it and with the straw, despite the rain.” This detailed evocation of the land is explicitly linked to the villagers’ “ant-like labours” on it; it is not a place among places, a location on a map, but a pressing situation in which life is carved out. The arrival of a mapmaker commissioned by the landowner disrupts this accumulation of particular detail, presenting Walter with a vertiginous bird’s-eye view: “He’s coloured and he’s flattened us … The land is effortless; a lie. He hasn’t captured time: how long a walk might take; how long the seasons or the nights must last. No man has ever seen this view.” The map, an apparently ordinary object, is a dividing line between one kind of life and another, between then and now. Here as elsewhere, Crace’s writing presents now-commonplace practices as the strange technologies they once were. It aims at neither realism nor allegory, but an intervention into our perception of the world as it is now. It doesn’t always work – some passages strain with effort – but that’s testament to the ambition and power of this deceptively simple novel.
The map is designed to help the landowner who presides over the Village to go into business as a sheep farmer, a more profitable enterprise. Crace’s choice is no accident: this is the alteration in land use characteristic of the enclosures, which entails removing peasants from the land they had tended for generations and creating a landless population forced to work for wages to survive. This modernisation was catastrophic for many villages such as the one described in Harvest, and completely transformed the English countryside into an early approximation of the view that visitors to the United Kingdom will see from the plane today as they come in to land: cityscapes surrounded by a grid-like system of fenced fields. And yet only the most simplistic reading could see Crace as lamenting the passage of a previous form of life. As much as the enclosures are brutal, the life that preceded this moment was brutal too: subsistence farming, as Crace is at pains to show us, is not an idyll: “Our great task each and every year to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools. The clamour deafens us. But this is how we have to live our lives.”
The intense communal bonds made possible by this way of life can seem suffocating. It is the Village’s introspection and distrust of outsiders that precipitates its crisis: when three strangers arrive, they are blamed for a crime they did not commit, leading to the death of one and a dramatic retribution. The plot, as this brief summary suggests, is pure historical melodrama, encompassing murder, sex, hallucinogens, fire and accusations of witchcraft in less than 300 pages; in the hands of a less skilled writer, the pace might have become ridiculous, but Harvest is taut and urgent, capable of evoking the horror of the sudden transformations – scenes, for example, in which female villagers are accused of witchcraft and violently assaulted are vivid and disturbing.
Perhaps a world in which close, fixed communities such as the Village had never been torn apart would have been ‘better’, but Crace suspends judgment on the matter: this is not a way of life to which we can return. Reading the novel through the lens of a pastoral nostalgia would be to lose its relevance. The Village’s tragedy is not singular, and it is not fixed in a completed history.
Walter, the narrator, is a perfect character to bear the weight of all that Crace wants to do with this book. As someone who married a villager but wasn’t born there, he is both insider and outsider of the Village, but not from it. The agonies inflicted on the Village may be as painful to Walter as to his neighbours, but he has already been able to see the place from the outside, even without the abrupt perspectival shift of the new maps, the new brutalities. He is already, in a sense, a being from the time after the enclosures; he has lived in towns, worked for a wage. For him, unlike the others in the Village, being forced off the land is not an alteration in who he is, only in how he lives. This difference makes his voice plausible, and gives the novel’s potentially cloying evocation of country life a sharp edge. All things considered, it should not be possible to write a novel narrated by a medieval peasant and make it anything other than embarrassing; the gap between writer and character should be too wide – and yet Crace’s rendering of Walter’s voice, lyrical, strange, vivid, deflects the impossibility that such a voice could exist.
Crace’s obvious gifts as a writer mean that, even where an anachronistic tone creeps in, it feels deliberate. Walter reports of a meeting with the new landowner, “He mentions Profit, Progress, Enterprise, as if they are his personal Muses. Ours has been a village of Enough, but he proposes it will be a settlement of More.”
Surely no medieval lord, however rapacious, would have spoken like this; this is the language of a later stage of capitalism. In the context of an elsewhere almost flawless quality of Walter’s voice, which captures the grain and texture of a completely alien relation to the land, the anachronisms are meant to point to what this acute, perfectly formed novel does best: remind us that history is still ongoing.