A book about peasant folk dealing with a change in management is not the kind of thing I generally would pick up, but Jim Crace is such a splendid writer, I’m glad I gave it a go.
Set in an unspecified – but irrefutably English – rural landscape, the story tells the tale of a wheat farming community coming to the end of a harvest, and a change that ravages the farm within seven days.
There’s elements of The Crucible here, as well as Of Mice And Men, as newcomers arrive to a closed and suspicious community of simple folk, who turn to the ever-present scapegoat of witchery to obfuscate their own guilt.
The language is rich and earthy, as you might expect, and the ponderings of the protagonist, Walter Thirsk, are intelligent, observant and modestly philosophical. It’s the perfect voice for an educated serving man, turned farm hand. He’s certainly articulate. He has a countryman’s wisdom; for instance, on gossip, he writes:
“Secrets are like pregnancies hereabouts. You can hide them for a while but then they will start screaming.”
There’s a lot of that kind of insight, among agricultural metaphors to describe everyday events.
Ploughing a lone furrow
The narrator himself personifies what appears to be a major theme: isolation. Walt is among friends in the book, but his background isolates him from the other villagers. Indeed, the village itself is isolated, cut off from the world by stone boundaries beyond which no one strays. Meanwhile, the first newcomers – strays from a neighbouring farm – have been isolated from their own community. And, the hobbling chart maker – arguably the hero of the piece – is socially isolated both by his education and his disability.
But the book is more about the land, and our relationship with it – our exploitation of it. The monumental shift in the book’s unspecified era is from the toil and romance of subsistence agriculture to the harsh realities of sheep rearing – namely, sweeping redundancies. And it’s this “progress” that Crace riles against, harking after simpler times, before the money got involved.
Making his Marx
It’s certainly a socialist book, in so much as it’s anti-capitalist. The incoming landowner, Master Jordan, speaks of profit like a rural Gordon Gekko, justifying the destruction of a community without the slightest compassion.
“We should not deceive ourselves that in a modern world a common system such as ours which only benefits commoners (and only in prolific years) could earn the admiration of more rational observers for whom ‘agriculture without coin’ is absurd.”
The book’s pace is ponderous – not airily like a Wordsworth poem, but ruminative – and yet it somehow whips past. The book was over before I’d realised it (the last few pages were an introduction to Crace’s subsequent book, rather than a climactic ending, as I’d supposed), and therein lies my only criticism: the ending is somewhat subdued. I had expected something more explosive – it felt like it was building to a crescendo – but shame on me for wanting a Hollywood ending in what otherwise might be considered its antithesis.
It’s a wonderful read, with meaty prose that flows like poetry, and I thoroughly recommend it. What’s more, it further vindicates my love of the humble book exchange – I am forced to broaden my literary horizons, and I am all the happier for it.