By Jim Crace

(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 244 pages)

Who is this author?

Jim Crace, a British novelist who lives in Birmingham, England, has harvested plenty of prestigious awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Among his 10 novels previous to “Harvest,”  “Being Dead” was on the short list for the 1999 Whitbread Fiction Prize and won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2000. In 1997, “Quarantine” won Whitbread Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Crace has also received the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and the Guardian Fiction Prize.

What is this book about?

Set in pre-Industrial Revolution England, perhaps in the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, this slim novel packs an uncommon punch. To a too small to be named, a village where fewer than 60 souls make their home as farmers of barley and wheat and keepers of cattle, pigs and goats, suddenly is facing change – unwelcome change. Over just one week, at harvest time, a prank gone wrong sets off profound consequences, including fires, murders, punishment by pillory and the prospect of an end to village life. Walter, the narrator, has lived among the villagers for a dozen years, but when the troubles mount, he is treated like an outsider. This causes him pain, but also gives him a valuable perspective. The characters are piquant, and one of the most important is the land itself, portrayed exquisitely by Crace.

Why you’ll like it:

Crace has done a masterful job of creating story line, setting and characters, in a novel that feels almost like an allegory. His vivid description of the land and the villagers’ reverence for it, the ancient rituals of farming and husbandry and his expert understanding of the long-ago simplicities of rural life and the eternal complexities of human relationships make for a stunning whole. A fine book to read at any time of year, but especially as autumn begins and we feel the wheel of the year turning again and the chill lurking behind the golden days.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “….Crace asks large questions: How will ordinary people behave when ripped from their mundane routines, cut adrift from comforting old verities? What suppressed capacity for cruelty may surface? What untested gift for improvised survival?…By transposing contemporary anxieties onto distant times he allows us to feel them afresh…In his compassionate curiosity and his instincts for insurgent uncertainty, Crace surely ranks among our greatest novelists of radical upheaval, a perfect fit for our unstable, unforgiving age. “

Says Publishers Weekly: “In his previous 10 novels, the versatile Crace has been heralded for his firmly rooted, painstakingly detailed impressions of time and place, and his latest work is no exception. In fact, the setting—an isolated English farming village, in an unspecified past, with its “planched and thicketed” inhabitants—is so imaginatively described that it stands as the book’s richest character. Over the course of seven days following the harvest, the hamlet is alight with sudden change. A mysterious fire has set Master Kent’s manor stables and dovecote ablaze. Three newcomers—two men and an ominously alluring woman—who arrived that same night are hastily blamed for the fire. All three have their heads shaved as punishment, and the men are shackled for a week to a pillory. When one of them dies and the master’s favorite horse is later found bludgeoned to death, accusations of witchcraft erupt from within the townsfolk’s ranks and nothing, not even the secretive Master Kent’s halfhearted attempt at rooting out the truth and delivering justice, can quell the thirst for revenge that rattles the once principled town to its foundation. Walter Thirsk plays the perfect unreliable narrator; his deliberations about Master Kent’s true intentions, his neighbors’ guilt, and his own role in the events deepen an already resonant story. Crace’s signature measured delivery and deliberate focus create unforgettably poetic passages that quiver with beauty.”

Library Journal says: “Crace ….is a master at creating worlds at once familiar and startlingly sui generis. In a premodern English village, the biblical caution “As ye reap, so ye shall sow” proves true both literally and figuratively; with the hard work of planting and harvesting as backdrop, we see the villagers move inexorably toward a tragedy they’ve provoked. One morning, Master Kent’s stable is found burning, and strangers who have peaceably signaled their presence by sending up the customary smoke plume are blamed; their heads are shaved, and the two men are put in stocks. The only one to show them sympathy is odd Mr. Quill, hired to map the village lands. As suggested by the narrator, Walt—himself an outsider brought to the manor by Master Kent—that mapping heralds a foreboding shift in the village’s future that parallels its current troubles. VERDICT A quietly breathtaking work revealing how fate plays with us as we play with fate; highly recommended.”

“Rarely does language so plainspoken and elemental tell a story so richly open to interpretation on so many different levels. Is this a religious allegory? An apocalyptic fable? A mystery? A meditation on the human condition? With economy and grace, the award-winning Crace …gives his work a simplicity and symmetry that belie the disturbances beneath the consciousness of its narrator. It’s a narrative without specifics of time or place, in the countryside of the author’s native England, following a harvest that will prove different than any the villagers have ever experienced, in a locale where, explains the narrator, “We do not even have a title for the village. It is just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land.” In the beginning, the narrator speaks for the community, “bounded by common ditches and collective hopes,” yet one where “[t]heir suspicion of anyone who was not born within these boundaries is unwavering.” The “they” proves crucial, as the narrator who initially speaks for the collective “we” reveals that he is in fact an outsider, brought to the village 12 years earlier by the man who is the master of the manor, and that he is someone who has become a part of the community, yet remains apart from it. There has been a fire following the harvest, disrupting the seasonal cycle, and although evidence points to three young men within the community, blame falls on two men and a woman who have recently camped on the outskirts. There is also someone making charts of the land and an issue of succession of ownership. There is a sense that this harvest may be the last one for these people, that the land may be converted to different use. “[P]lowing is our sacrament, our solemn oath, the way we grace and consecrate our land,” yet that way of life may soon be over. “There isn’t one of us–no, them–who’s safe,” declares the narrator, who must ultimately come to terms with the depths of his solitude. Crace continues to occupy a singular place in contemporary literature,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

You can reap this “Harvest” from the new book shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Camp Field branch.

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