Review: ‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace (2013)

by K.M. Zahrt

Finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize

Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize

This year, my 2014 Thanksgiving Weekend fiction reading selection goes to — drum roll, please — Harvest by Jim Crace.

Crace is no stranger to one of literature’s most prestigious awards. His 1997 novel Quarantine was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize as well as this, his eleventh novel. Although he came just shy of the spotlight once again, Harvest would be at home on the Booker Prize bookshelf, right next to past winners like Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996), J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), and John Banville’s The Sea (2005). What these novels share is a finely tuned, deliberate prose that has been honed to zero in on something that feels — and, Julian Barnes’ 2011 winner could and perhaps should be included here — like a sense of an ending.

These books are not gargantuan tomes like Eleanor Catton’s historical novel The Luminaries which championed the 2013 class. These are the kind of books that should be given time to percolate, time for you to ruminate and to reflect, and — in Crace’s case — to give thanks for the harvest.

In an article published on theguardian.com, Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, argues that Crace’s Harvest and Catton’s The Luminaries were part of the best Booker shortlist in a decade because as “a Commonwealth prize, as well as a British and Irish one, […] the shortlist reflects the common wealth of many nations, many imaginations.” And, “Of the six shortlisted,” Churchwell goes on to state, “[Harvest] is probably the most explicitly about the ways in which place shapes our identity. A parable about enclosure, it is set in an indeterminate agrarian past that resembles 17th-century England but remains carefully undated, uncharted.”

Churchwell calls Harvest a hybrid, tragical-pastoral novel because it takes place at an unidentified time in an unidentified location in which a small village of farmers have managed to establish a meager-but-comfortable way of life. Crace could’ve leaned heavily on a nostalgic crutch, offering only a romanticized view of the past, however enjoyable for the escapist reader, when the simple days of yore were filled with pleasant camaraderie that came to a climax with the celebration of yet another year’s worth of work and, by contrast, painting a grim picture of modern society. But, Harvest is more complex than that. It’s illustrates that even the smallest of utopian existences would prove hard to preserve stagnantly and that communities need to evolve and to adapt in order to survive, much less thrive. As Howard Zinn would put it, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

In this roundabout way, Crace demonstrates the pragmatic necessity for thankfulness. At some point, we must forget about this year’s foibles and be thankful for the fruit, whatever fruit we’ve got — including all the amenities of modern society — because next year’s harvest is impossible to predict.

In conclusion, let me warn you, Harvest — like its somber, heartfelt brethren on the bookshelf — is not a page-turner. It takes 20 or 30 pages to slow down a step and fall into stride with our lonely, injured narrator, Walter Thirsk. But, give it some time to grow on you. Nurture it. After all, a harvest isn’t grown in a single day and, as Churchwell cites of Colm Toibin (another worthy name on the 2013 shortlist), “one does not judge a mosaic by the colour of one pebble.”

So, give thanks this weekend, friends, and take the time to enjoy a good book.

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