Man Booker 2013 – rural mayhem

There is no simple reason why I am writing about these two books, The Spinning Heart and Harvest, together other than that I read them one after the other. They neatly bookend a career, if what one reads in the Press is anything to go by, and they are both rural tales. Therein any other similarity vanishes.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is a first novel, a second is already near completion it seems. Set in Ireland after the Tiger economy has crashed and burned, we meet in each chapter another person affected, wounded or imperilled by the sudden change in their circumstances. Women who have been taken up and dumped or abused by their menfolk; employees who have been tricked by their employer, the aptly named Pokey Burke and men damaged by abusive parenting. It is all here in its appalling brutality, but nevertheless some of them have risen above it all and become sons and daughters to be proud of. Bobby Mahon is one of these: an abusive father whom he hates lives in a cottage which has the spinning heart of the title on its gate, a wrought iron heart. The father verbally abused the mother to her grave, forcing his son to distance himself from his mother to his great regret, so that the rift never healed; the father then drunk away the family fortune to spite his own (already deceased) father and lives on and on, seemingly to spite his own son who badly needs the cottage and its remaining land to capitalise on to get back on his feet after having been shafted by his employer…you get the drift.

Sparely written, each new chapter adds another dimension to the previous one until the reader is left with a deepening sense of the pain and anguish, the spitefulness and small-mindedness of a rural community in crisis. The disappointments are riven though, from time to time, with a sense of the goodness of the few who have risen above it all and become decent people, and so the ending, which is not an ending is all the more powerful.

On the other hand, Harvest by Jim Crace is not so much about the spitefulness of people so much as the relentless demands of the land. This is rural England at around the turn of the 17th and 18th century, before enclosures. The villagers are still beholden to the manor, they till the fields, they sow the seed, they harvest the grain for the benefit of the lord of the manor, in return the lord of the manor dispenses justice, fairness and allows for the gleaning of the harvest for the people of the village to brew small ale and make porridge etc. Essentially a symbiotic relationship. But, possibly because village life is so enclosed, outsiders can pose a threat and are treated with suspicion. In this unfortunate circumstance, the novel opens with a scene of mischief that goes horribly wrong coinciding with the arrival of three newcomers. The mischief is suspected by at least one person in the village, Walter Thirsk, himself an in-comer but because of his silence a miscarriage of justice occurs and from this and other events, more disaster follows. Furthermore, there are changes afoot which will affect the whole village for better or worse, the title to the manor passes from one cousin to another, another with very different views as to the future…

According to the Press, Jim Crace has said this is his last novel. If this is so, he has not gone out with a whimper! Harvest stands up with the very best of his writing, and it breaks my heart to think that there will not be any more. This, like Quarantine, is not quite a reality tale but more of a allegory. The ur-village in this book and its inhabitants represent an age in Britain that has been lost forever and their losses stand for a much greater loss which we all have had to deal with one way or another. But the power of the writing lies in the lucidity of the prose, the deftness of touch that makes Jim Crace’s book so memorable, and so re-readable. Just as village life changed irrecoverably once the fields were enclosed and the practice of arable agriculture turned to pasture, the sense of a shared community was also lost; where joint effort is replaced by singularity of purpose then what follows is the rise and rise of a ‘me,my,mine’ mentality and this in its turn led to capitalism and so on. Life dependent on the lord of the manor may not have been an idyll, but the shared sense of purpose both at good times and bad must have ameliorated the basics somewhat. Enclosure and what followed altered that, drove masses of people off the land and into the cities and the consequences for Britain remain visible and actual today.

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