I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of months now. That’s in part because I’ve been crazy busy, and in part because I really don’t have much to say about this book. I don’t mean that as a knock, Harvest is a quick and pleasurable read, a historical fiction quasi-thriller by a very talented author. It’s a good book, but in the end a pretty unremarkable one. So apologies ahead of time that this review is as much summary as anything.
Crace’s novel is set in a post-Medieval English barley-farming village, in the days immediately following the yearly harvest. Some youths get a little carried away in the festivities celebrating the occasion, and what was intended as a minor prank ends up burning down the barn of the property’s lord.
Their lord, however, is in the process of losing his rights to the land to an in-law’s inheritance claim, and the new guy is a Sheriff of Nottingham type, who wants to leave his impression upon the peasants swiftly and forcibly. So some drifters found on the outskirts of town are scapegoated, and punished for the boys’ crime.
From there the book’s tension is a slow burn–though the plot still manages to move along briskly enough. The protagonist, Walter Thirsk, has a unique point of view, at once an insider and an outsider. He grew up alongside the kindly master, and the two were friends as much as their social stations would allow. He ultimately became the landlord’s valet, before finding a wife in the village and converting to a farmer’s life.
During the peaceful times, Walter had thought himself assimilated with the villagers, but as tensions rise beneath the boot of the new master, he finds they offer him little trust. With his neighbors distrustful and his benevolent master neutered of power, Walter find himself adrift, unsure of what to do or where to turn. To compound things, he knows what many don’t: not only the truth of who burned the barn, but that the new lord doesn’t intend to plant a new crop for the coming year. Instead, in a move for greater profits, the property is to be converted to fields for sheep, the care for which will require far fewer villagers.
Crace plays the dramatic tension well. The town was doomed even before the barn caught fire, yet he allows the arson to give the impression of a levee breaking, depicting one freak incident as the loose thread that unravels everything. It’s an entrancing read that has no business being as riveting as it is, seeing as nothing all that shocking or surprising occurs. Walter’s narration is the strength of the book, but ultimately the reader isn’t left with much reason to mourn for the town and way of life that Walter has lost, because he realizes he’s no more alone in the aftermath than he was as a villager with one foot in either camp.
Similar Reads:The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro), Being Dead (Crace)