There is a silent ripeness to the air

Harvest
by Jim Crace

This is an unusual book, primarily because of its historical setting and premise. While there are plenty of historical novels, there are few that remain so determinedly non-specific about the time and place in which they are set and even fewer where the action revolves around the forced enclosure of common land.

England (which is presumably the setting, though even that isn’t stated outright) had a series of Enclosure Acts from the 12th century to the 19th, but they became especially common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Effectively, this allowed landowners to seize common land – land that their tenants, which often meant whole villages, farmed for their own use – and enclose it, controlling what was farmed there. This might mean charging rent to local people or it might mean switching to a type of farming that employed far fewer people, such as sheep farming.

It doesn’t sound like the most auspicious basis for a book, but actually that part of it really worked for me. It felt very relevant to be reading about social injustice, the rich getting richer while the poor lose what little they have. There is some action too – arson, violence, death – which the landowner turns to his advantage, though the villagers don’t realise it.

Continue reading “There is a silent ripeness to the air”

An underwater stillness, no wind or rain

All the Birds, SingingAll the Birds, Singing
by Evie Wyld

If someone had told me that I would rave enthusiastically over a book about sheep farming, frankly I would have laughed at such a ridiculous statement. Now perhaps it’s because the sheep farming is arguably incidental, and not really what this novel’s about, but there is quite a lot of it and yet I really loved this book.

How to describe this book? Jake (who, confusingly, is female) is living on an unnamed British island farming sheep. She avoids people as much as she can and seems to have run away from something in her past back in Australia. Interspersed between us learning more (although far from everything) about her past, we follow her present, where something or someone is killing her sheep but she is reluctant to ask for help dealing with it.

“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that.”

Clearly there is something dark in her past, which aligns well with the literal wet and dark atmosphere of the present, but the way it is gradually revealed is clever and the facts themselves were surprising, not what I expected, even with on reflection plenty of hints given. But the gaps that are left leave you still guessing, still piecing the full story together at the end, which I almost feel should have been frustrating, but actually worked for me.

Jake herself is an interesting character, brittle and stand-offish, but to an extent it’s left open whether that’s innate to who she is or the result of her past. She’s also a very strong person – though her age isn’t given in the present section, I got the impression she was still in her twenties, yet she’s running a small sheep farm single-handed.

But for all the hard work and difficult subject matter, there’s also humour. Black humour, to be sure, but it’s enough to lift the mood at just the right moments and make the story wholly human. For all Jake’s distance from other people, there are still some touching emotional scenes as well. Plus (and this went down particularly well at book club) there are two dogs that are very much major characters themselves, not just pets in the background, which is pretty awesome.

There’s also a gothic element to the book, with a few scenes that could be interpreted as in some way supernatural, but then again could just be Jake’s altered state of mind. Certainly the wild, wet and windy island, and Jake’s remote farmhouse surrounded by muddy fields, are a perfect gothic setting, and somehow the stark realism of some scenes, such as her rescuing a sheep that’s stuck in mud, only add to that atmosphere.

“An underwater stillness, no wind or rain, not even a small owl, just a thick blanket of silence. I shut my eyes, and felt the mattress creak as Dog loped up on it, and weaved himself between my feet. The room settled and I counted heartbeats. There was a quiet crackle then silence again.”

I really did love this book and will definitely be adding Wyld’s first book, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, to my shelves soon.

Published 2013 by Jonathan Cape.

Source: Waterstones.

See also: Simon Savidge’s podcast You Wrote the Book includes a great interview with Evie Wyld about this book