It’s that time of the year again: Literature becomes universally exciting and noteworthy for a few short weeks while a jury of high-flying writers and critics determines which lucky novelist’s book sales will go through the roof this autumn. It’s the Man Booker Prize, “The world’s most important literary award,” the winner of which will be announced on October 15th.
This year, the announcement of the prize’s shortlisted novels coincided with news that from 2014, any work written in English and published in the U.K. can be entered, which means U.S. writers can now be in the running. Many critics are not pleased with this development, fearing for the future of both British and independently published novels. It certainly seems that the criteria for submissions make it harder to submit a novel that doesn’t come with lots of accolades (and money), but what worries me — purely as a layperson and reader — is the loss of focus on novels by Commonwealth writers. So far, the prize has been open to writers from the U.K., the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe and the Republic of Ireland, and many of the shortlisted novels and winning books have come from countries other than the U.K. Debating the usefulness of the concept of a Commonwealth is a discussion worth having at any time, but with the general literary focus being firmly on American and British authors, allowing lesser-known and lesser-sold works from other English-speaking countries to compete for a prestigious prize like the Man Booker has given them a real chance to come to the world’s attention. With well-known American authors backed by big publishers coming into the competition, such diversity looks severely threatened. Other, presumably less romanticizing writers than me, see the economic necessity that made the Man Booker committee make their inclusive move, and while this is sound reasoning, it’s a worrying prospect anyway.
After barely keeping up with the winners of the past years, I’ve decided to read all the shortlisted novels this year. I might not manage before the winner is announced, but I’ll just keep reading. So far, I’ve been impressed, and it looks like I’ve started with this year’s favourite as well!
Harvest is Jim Crace’s eleventh book. (And the author lives in Birmingham — so much for exciting new voices from all over the world.) Crace is clearly an experienced writer, and the setting of his latest novel is incredibly neat and almost classical. In a nameless English farming village in times long past, things start to go wrong when three outsiders set up camp and are being blamed for an arson attack on the local manor house. Over the course of seven days, life as the villagers know it completely disintegrates. Walter Thirsk, a middle-aged widower who used to be employed by the master of the manor before he married into one of the local families, narrates the events and ponders on his own role in this secluded, closely-knit community. His voice immediately commands the attention of the reader and is accepted as trustworthy, as it is not only concise and calm, but also uses an uncommon, but very fitting “we”-perspective. A few pages of descriptions of the barley harvest are enough to convince the reader that the village community acts and speaks as one. As soon as the Manor house fire breaks out in the early morning hours, however, Walter becomes separated from the crowd, both physically (he burns his hand and is unfit for further work) and linguistically (“we” and “I” become separate entities, as Walter ponders his status as a (temporary?) outsider). At first he finds excuses for the village’s treatment of the newcomers, who are used purely as scapegoats for a few local boys’ antics that led to the fire. But when a cousin of the Master arrives and claims ownership of the land, village life begins to unravel from the outside as well as the inside, and Walter is shocked by the merciless behaviour of the new master, especially after one of the strangers dies in the pillory.
What happens now reads like an experiment conducted on small groups within contained spaces. As the villagers get more afraid of their own deeds and the consequences, the level of violence rises. Walter quickly gets ostracised and fears for his safety. After twelve years, he has to reconsider his place in the community:
But whatever future I can devise for myself, I cannot be light-hearted about the present. I am furrowed sad tonight to see the village back away from me. My neighbours leave me standing on my own. Now I wonder if I’ve been a fool about this place; my restlessness is just a curse, a moling demon in my heart whose mischief is to have me leave the only acres that can provide me happiness.
This thought resonated with me all the way through the book. As a reader, I tend to go for books that I know will deal with themes of displacement and belonging, and yet I still catch my breath when a passage puts my muddled thoughts into words that make perfect sense. I felt with Walter, who had once decided on a life and a home and is now not so sure about it anymore. The style of this passage, this clear stating of facts, even if they are personal dilemmas, characterises Walter’s voice in the book. His language is succinct, and neither forced full of anachronistic vocabulary nor pretentiously “literary,” whatever that might mean to anyone. Harvest is not a historical novel either. It is what it is — the account of a week in the life of a village that is threatened from the outside as much as from within. It’s vague enough to be read as a classical allegory, and touching enough to be seen as a personal tragedy. It moved me, and it deserves all the recognition this nomination will bring.