The landscape of Harvest is telling from the title: it is set in a rural English village that uses the feudal, medieval system for its farming methods. However, it is seeing the dramatic change from subsistence agriculture to cotton wool production. In this unnamed village (this nature heavily hinting towards the novel being allegorical) change is not welcomed with open arms, apparent from the way they treat the three innocent arrivals. Visually, the image of two columns of smoke – one clean and harmless, one black and daunting – is seen by the readers and the villagers. This first image of comparison from page one sets the attitude usurped by the villagers for the rest of the novel. The theme of inability to assimilate cultures that Crace has presented is a timeless and apt theme worldwide.
As the novel progresses, the clear images of community values within the village seem to disintegrate. Starting from a very distinctly collective group of people, individuality slowly creeps in until people start leaving, scared by the intense changes that have come about and the dark accusations that the new landlord starts casting. It seems that the only character who is not targeted by the wave of unfair criminalisation is the man who was an individual from the beginning; the protagonist Walter Thirsk. Although Walter was woven into the group dynamic, there was a palpable separation from he and the rest of the villagers – mostly due to his relationship with Master Kent and from him not being born and bred from the village. This distinction seems reinforced by the fact that the only voice the readers hear is Walters as it is written in first person narrative. Additionally, this dissimilarity was more tangibly felt by all the characters than Walter thought (and perhaps more than even the villagers themselves thought) as it does not take long for his fellow villagers to shun him. It seems evident here that Crace’s opinion on human nature is that we thrive better when working as individuals and that, when stripped back and put under pressure, it is every man for himself.
The fact that it is set in a period of seven days seems to highlight the ease with which humans turn on each other when pressure is applied. Even little Lizzie Car gets abandoned by her family, including her own father and mother, when fear sets in; the harshness of this is emphasised by the frequent use of the adjective “little” to describe her.
Despite this, there is a sense of safety about the community dynamic in the beginning; this is born from its predictability. Every day goes on neatly and routinely, and any change was due to weather and climate; even this is noted to be minimal. Although this was felt as dull by Thirsk, he felt that it was safe and there was nothing to fear. Towards the end, predictability disappears and the phrase “nothing was impossible” is used by Walther as he reviews the changes that have taken place in seven days.
Overall, this novel envelops many pertinent themes that Crace makes no effort to convey with subtlety. Using a variety of literary techniques, his themes are presented in stark, loud colours; his writing is transparent and clear in the images he creates. Admittedly, the pace is slow and I would not recommend it for a beach read, but it is without a doubt a thought-provoking and interesting book.
Words by India Woodward