This is the way the world ends
Jim Crace’s 11th novel is a remorseless allegory exploring the dark side of what we think of as economic progress, as it rudely elbows aside settled ways of life.
Harvest is set in an English farming community inhabited by barely 60 souls and known only as “the Village,” in an indeterminate time whose subtle clues seem to place it in the 17th or 18th century. The village finds itself the victim of the enclosure movement that soon will turn common lands used for barley farming into private property, where tenants raise sheep for the benefit of a ruthless and domineering landowner. After the dovecote of Master Kent, the landlord’s agent, is destroyed in a suspicious fire, three strangers, themselves refugees from a neighboring village, are summarily and wrongfully accused. The two male members of the trio are confined in the village’s pillory, while their female companion disappears into the night like a lifting mist. Over the next week, Walter Thirsk, Master Kent’s former manservant and now one of the village’s farmers, describes how this intemperate act seems to provoke the unraveling of the community’s simple existence.
Thirsk’s pained and plainspoken narrative voice tugs the reader along as the story becomes more bleak and violent and the depth of the villagers’ tragedy is slowly revealed. There are the deaths of humans and a beloved horse, the arrest and torture of several villagers and suspicions of betrayal and even sorcery. Thirsk watches these events with rising dismay as he describes the fear, paranoia and bewilderment of his fellow villagers, who understand the placid, if often difficult, life they’ve shared is coming to an end. “It feels as if some impish force has come out of the forest in the past few days,” he observes, “to see what pleasure it can take in causing turmoil in a tranquil place.”
Harvest invites comparison to stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and even the work of Stephen King, if without some of their narrative pyrotechnics. Though its climax isn’t quite equal to the sense of foreboding Crace patiently builds throughout the novel, it’s fully consistent with the story’s elegiac tone. As he did in his National Book Critics Circle award-winning novel Being Dead, Crace demonstrates his consummate skill at creating and sustaining a mood that moves relentlessly from unease to outright dread.