I’ve been meaning to post about Jim Crace‘s latest novel for a while, but as it’s looking increasingly likely that it will win the Man Booker Prize tonight, today seems like a good time.

harvestIt’s a brief story narrated by Walter Thirsk, a man who is part of (and yet not fully accepted by) a community powerless to stop the march of progress over their land and way of life. Strangely claustrophobic, despite most of the action occurring outside, the writing has an almost poetic quality that drives the narrative through some surprising swerves towards a conclusion that balances the inevitable and the unexpected.

Set in a village (known only as The Village by the inhabitants who have better things to do than invent names for places already identified by their purpose) in the Midlands during the time of enclosure, the novel could be read as allegorical, telling us that we reap (or harvest) what we sow. Crace has admitted that he makes up most of the historical (and scientific) detail in his novels, informing the audience on Sunday evening at the shortlist readings that telling lies is “fun” and that readers who want facts can go to non-fiction books. However, there’s nothing fanciful about his study of human nature under pressure; he explores how hospitality dries up during bad times and how easily the ‘last man in’ (even if that was over a decade ago) can find himself one of ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. The author describes it as a novel about scapegoating and one of the most interesting aspects is how the least powerful newcomers are punished while the truly threatening outsider stands above and apart. The idea of the ‘good man who does nothing’ is also touched on, though here the focus is on how little a good man can do.

Harvest is the only book I’ve read from this year’s shortlist – I’ve just started Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary – so I can’t say if it deserves to win, but I can say I’m pleased that Crace has now cast doubt on his previous announcement that it will be his last novel. He’s a storyteller, valuing narrative over structure or context and harking back to the oral tradition. That approach appeals to me and I’ll be looking out for the next tale…


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