In Harvest, Jim Crace explores what happens in an isolated feudal village when a trio of outsiders set up camp on the common land and attempt to claim squatters’ rights. The villagers destroy the intruders’ makeshift camp and remain silent when they are wrongly accused of setting fire to the Master’s stable. The severe punishment meted out to the newcomers is not contested by any of the villagers, including Walter Thirsk, from whose point of view the story is narrated. Thirsk is not a bad man, but his doubts and hesitations, combined with his own status as an outsider, mean that he fails to act when it is in his power to help the travelers. But the villagers’ brutality towards the strangers leaves them divided and helpless when a new master arrives with plans to enclose the common land and turn it into grazing for sheep. Confused and disoriented, the villagers are easily chased off the land when some of the women and girls are seized and accused of practicing witchcraft. Their refusal to stand up for the strangers in their midst leaves them incapable of standing up for themselves. The pressure exerted by the new master scatters the villagers and leaves each one thinking of his/her own safety first. Thirsk is no exception:
I am alarmed, to tell the truth. Our snug and tiresome village has burst apart these last few days. Master Havoc and Lady Pandemonium have already set to work. We are a moonball that’s been kicked just for the devilry, by some vexatious foot. Our spores are scattering. And it seems I ought to scatter too. Perhaps at once. It’s always better to turn your back on the gale than press your face against it. Indeed, I am already looking at my possessions and wondering which few of them I ought to bag across my shoulders and by which path I might best secure my liberty.
This novel shows how fear, prejudice and opportunism can lead to the downfall of an entire community. It is a novel for the times we live in.
– Catherine Vigier, Zeteo contributing Writer
Jim Crace, Harvest, London, Picador, 2013. Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker prize.