Seven years ago I began keeping a journal of (primarily) fiction I had read. The act of writing is an act of engraving on the brain and a few notes about plot, characters and language, as well as my reactions and opinions, helped to lodge the novels more firmly in my memory.
Then, this past February I finished a book I loved (Jim Crace’s Harvest) while traveling, and didn’t record my impressions. Nor did I record the next book. Or the next, and the rot had set in. Now, looking at that stack of books waiting to make their way into my journal, I find that some are not simply more memorable, but are remembered more viscerally, housed in the brain, but experienced in the body.
This isn’t really news to me. An example: In the late 1970s I read a good deal of John Hawkes. Honestly, I can’t even pretend to say what the novels were about. But I just have to think of a title, say, The Second Skin, and I am visited by a sensation, not entirely pleasant, on my own skin, as if I were standing in the sun, too hot, too dry, too exposed. There is an accompanying intimation of a fragrance that is both floral and foreign. It is a sensual confusion that has something to do with compulsion and danger, of that combination of desire and regret, the future tainted with the past.
Of all the books that I have read this past year, it is Harvest that I expect to remember through sensation when the details of the plot fade. There will be the smell of smoke and a bit of dread. Although I am not a very loyal reader, and sometimes decide that life is just too short to invest my time in another book by a familiar author, I am always happy to pick up something new by the unpredictable Jim Crace (whose Being Dead is among the books I most often recommend).
Harvest is set in a distant agrarian English past. It is a time when a laborer, man or woman, is likely to grow old without setting foot outside the manor’s boundaries, and a place where life is completely determined by the exigencies of working the land, of planting, tending, harvesting. This seemingly timeless pattern is ruptured as the rural economy, and thus, the very shape of the landscape and the lives tied to the land, begins to shift from the openness of cultivated fields to enclosures for sheep in response to the burgeoning wool industry. The action of the book takes place over the course of a week, long enough to watch a world destroyed.
The novel begins with a couple of fires and with Crace’s pitch-perfect prose: “Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light, or they at least surprise those of us who’ve not been up to mischief in the dark. Our land is topped and tailed with flames.” One of the fires is the work of three men who have drunk too much, eaten some mushrooms, and mean nothing more than to do some mischief. The other signals the determination of travelers to settle nearby. Our narrator is Walter Thirsk, the grieving widower, the outsider who, after twelve years in the community, is lulled into believing he has become an insider.
The trajectory from the moment the fires are sighted is unpredictable, but inexorable, with each succeeding crisis and tragedy the result of events that couldn’t be expected, and yet, in Crace’s hands, seem inevitable. We are in a distant world that is oddly familiar in which so much of what is known is really a smoky combination of suspicion, supposition and desire.
Harvest was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I recommend it without reservation.