This month the Waterloo Library Reading Group read (or in some cases listened to the audiobook of) Harvest by Jim Crace. The book is written from the perspective of Walter Thirsk, a resident (though not lifelong) of an unnamed medieval village and the narrator of the story of a turbulent period in the village’s history.
It’s cheeky for the writer of a reading group write-up to start by focusing on their own thoughts, but for Harvest it seems appropriate to take advantage of my position. I found the book hard to get into – the prose is clear and the countryside is evoked well, but the writing style is oddly cold and monotonous, and I found its treatment of its female characters infuriating, their lack of nuance leaving them as vessels for the thoughts of the narrator.
Another emphatic opinion at our group related to the book’s lack of positioning. Though the names of places and inhabitants suggest that the village is in Medieval England at a time of the division of common land and transition from localised to nationalised agriculture, there is no confirmation of this. Though we have a consistent narrator, he does not name himself until part way through the book. What’s more, he is a highly ambiguous character.
This ambiguity turned out, on discussion, to be the most interesting thing about the book. Walter Thirsk’s account of events in the village oscillates between affection, detachment and evangelism; he seems to jump in and out of the hive mind. He is trusted by the villagers, but also by the landowner and his more powerful cousin – his ambiguity turns into power and what he chooses to do with that power is very interesting. The plot references witchcraft – could Walter be the bringer of the omens? Is the book’s ambiguity of place only a marker pointing to the more interesting problem of an unreliable narrator?
Harvest is ripe with such pointers, linkages and metaphors. There are ties between the respective destructiveness of Walter, Beldam, Jordan, Kent and the villagers and the scale of change taking place in the characters’ medieval realm. The unyielding land is firmly linked to the calculated actions of Walter. Both seem compelled to survive, regardless of political or social context, out of necessity and impulse rather than rational planning.
The instability of the narrator makes it hard for the reader to define the motives of either Walter or Jim Crace. The reading group, like the book, ended with more questions than answers. The book group was ambivalent and wary towards the book; our meeting like the book ended with no neat conclusions but with a tangle of possibilities.
Sam, Waterloo Library book group