Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, Vintage Books, 2013
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Not one but two twists of smoke rise at the opening of British author Jim Crace’s 2013 Booker Prize shortlisted novel. They signify two different things, but each in its own way spells trouble. The initially more innocent one is set by outsiders coming within the boundaries of an isolated village just after the barley harvest. Although troubling to this wary community, the strangers have shown with their hearth fire that “they know the custom and the law.” The second fire, closer to home, shows nothing of the kind. The master’s doves, trapped under the roof of the barn by smoke, pay the final price. Who has set the fire is not proven, but Walter Thirsk has his suspicions, and it’s not the people from afar that he suspects.
Thirsk himself is an outsider who has become one of the tillers of the soil by marriage. Now a widower, he works as hard as the next man, but his ties to the community have grown weaker. An observer, perhaps by nature, he is not one of the group that seeks out the newcomers in an initial unfortunate encounter that lands the male intruders in the pillory. The sentence passed sounds barbaric to our modern ear, but Walter has no such qualms.
The harvest festival, then, is already marred by unfortunate events when true calamity comes to town. Master Kent’s hold on the land would have been cemented by the birth of a male heir, but his own wife has died in childbirth before that happy day could occur. His deceased wife’s cousin now has title to the property and he has other plans for the place, plans that do not include barley or the village needed to grow it. It’s sheep, not grain, that he sees in his future.
This is only the setup in a novel with several aims besides the surface story. The book was the fall pick of my reading group and it had different points of interest for different members. Some were moved by the unfolding tragedy that seems inevitable from the opening pages. The more metaphorically minded were interested in the qualities of parable in a tale about the human consequences of a moment of societal upheaval.
For me, the book’s main strength resides in its lucid, restrained language. Crace’s distanced stance prevented me from engaging as fully with the story as some other members did, but it was clearly a deliberate choice. With self-deprecating awareness, Crace has said, “I know my 17-year-old self would read my bourgeois fiction, full of metaphors and rhythmic prose, with a sinking heart.” But he isn’t writing for that earlier version of himself. Rather than immersing his narrator in the plot in a less self-conscious way, he chooses to have Thirsk act as a sort of bridge to our present day sensibilities.
In Sophia Martelli’s piece for The Guardian, she suggests that the outcome of the novel leads to the conclusion that the process of tremendous societal change leaves every man to fend for himself. It’s funny, then, that as our own discussion wrapped up, I came to a different, slightly more hopeful view—that in leaving the close communal life behind, Thirsk is also open again to the process of individuation.
For as the story clearly shows, the good old days were never as good as all that.