Jim Crace, a British author who won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for “Being Dead,” has long displayed an interest in the vicissitudes small communities undergo when buffeted by powerful economic and historical forces. “The Gift of Stones” (1989), set during the Stone Age, details how the making of bronze — ushering in the Bronze Age — imperils the livelihood of stoneworkers. “Signals of Distress” (1995) depicts an 1830s English village whose residents learn that the soda ash they extract from seaweed and sell is no longer needed to manufacture soap.
Crace’s latest novel, the outwardly unassuming yet surreptitiously thought-provoking “Harvest,” is a moral fable that takes place during one of England’s intermittent enclosure movements when title holders to shared land, or “commons,” fenced it off and evicted the peasants who farmed it. “Harvest,” narrated in the present tense by Walter Thirsk, one such peasant farmer, is set against the backdrop of a rise in the wool trade that impels landowners to convert their farms into sheep pastures. (This would mean that the story likely takes place in the 16th or 17th century, when the wool trade took off.)
As harvest season winds down in Walter’s tiny and remote village, a stranger, whom the villagers dub “Mr. Quill” after his writing utensil, maps the land at the behest of Master Kent, the putative landowner. What Kent is preparing for, laments Walter, “involves the closing and engrossment of our fields with walls and hedges, ditches, gates. . . . He means this village, far from everywhere, which has always been a place for horn, corn and trotter and little else, is destined to become a provisioner of wool. . . . Our final harvest might have come and gone.” Significantly, Quill informs Walter that Kent’s hand was forced by the real landowner, who will arrive shortly.
A subplot involves the relocation of three outsiders — two men and a woman — to the village. Their nighttime arrival coincides with the burning of Kent’s aviary and its doves, for which they are wrongly blamed and punished. But the woman, whom Kent dubs “Mistress Beldam,” calling to mind a sorceress, seeks revenge. Soon, Walter observes that “Master Havoc and Lady Pandemonium” have invaded the village. This subplot initially distracts attention from the enclosure of the commons. As the novel progresses, however, Crace ties the two threads, which apparently began to twine earlier; the newcomers are “fugitives from sheep, exiles from their own commons.”
The two story lines’ linchpin is Walter, whom Crace endows with compassion and a contemplative demeanor. Walter is also remarkably eloquent, which enlivens his descriptions of everything from emotional turmoil to flora and fauna, but strains credibility. Even with the knowledge that he is more than a peasant farmer, having been Kent’s manservant before they came to the village from town 12 years ago, it remains difficult to imagine Walter saying, “[H]is hand is trembling, and his breath is evidently being ladled from a shallow pool.”
Crace generally avoids letting characters slip into caricaturesque embodiment of larger phenomena, a frequent occurrence in parables. And in lending itself to metaphor, “Harvest” attains a haunting and almost subversive quality. For one cannot escape the feeling that a straightforward account of the plot would overlook a vital yet nebulous dimension of the story. Is an absentee landlord’s enclosure of the commons an allusion to the privatization by today’s global corporations not just of land, but water and even air? Is the transformation of a cooperative economic enterprise into one man’s project to generate more personal wealth, even if it entails turning out longtime tillers of the land, meant to evoke modern-day corporate takeovers and downsizing? Or is this really just a story about a single, anonymous, and inconsequential English hamlet centuries ago?
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