COWARDICE meets agricultural upheaval in Harvest, a novel by British novelist Jim Crace about a nameless English village on the cusp of losing its soul and way of life.
Crace never actually tells us that he's talking about England. But his references to British law, rural customs and use of names make it quite obvious where we are. Kent is about as quintessentially British a surname as one can find, for example.
In spite of the obvious setting, the author still takes pains to avoid specificity in order to give the tale an allegorical air.
The human weaknesses he plumbs are universal; the callousness of capital versus labour is a global experience. Villages and cities are never named. No dates are given. And the level of technological progress is deliberately vague. Harvest is set in a village called, yes, The Village, during an unspecified year that appears to be in the midst of the English agricultural revolution.
The story is told over seven days by one Water Thirsk, a middle-aged former city boy turned farmer for the past 12 years. He's recently widowed, morally wishywashy and torn between his old and current life.
One day, the villagers encounter three new settlers - two men and a woman - on their land. In a shameful lapse in moral fibre, the villagers frame the newcomers for a crime against their landlord, Charles Kent.
Shortly afterwards, it comes to light that the feudal barter agriculture The Village has enjoyed with Kent is about to be replaced by systematic sheep herding to maximise profits and supply looms in the city.
Livelihoods will be lost and families displaced. The two events are separate but become entwined by fate and weakness.
Thirsk is plain speaking enough, thanks to Crace's attempt at making the novel sound like it's being told entirely in the farmer's voice. And Thirsk is honest enough in his account for the novel to pass as his diary or memoir, although he's not immune to self deception and convenient rationalisation.
The authenticity of Thirsk's tone is only skin deep however. Crace can be forgiven for taking a page from the Bard's book and making Thirsk his Caliban, putting the best lines in his mouth. But to have a farmer bandy about words such as "ineffable" and "effusive" ruins the illusion. Crace may have deemed it necessary artifice but it's jarring nonetheless.
It's a passable tale, sort of like Arthur Miller's The Crucible meets M Night Shyamalan's The Village, narrated in a strong rural English accent.
Stay away if you can only stomach likeable characters. The lack of backbone in the cast of characters is frequently nauseating, and the fact that Thirsk is aware of that doesn't lessen the frustration. There are no heroes in Harvest. Cruelty goes unpunished. Don't expect every thread to be neatly tied up either.
There are no real answers. But perhaps that's Crace's point: in the real world, there are no larger-than life-heroes or neat plots, only men doing the best they can, struggling to hold on to fragile notions of home and hearth.