Melissa Harrison’s first novel was one of those titles surrounded by an insistent flurry of pre-publicity buzz which can be counter-productive, putting me right off the book. Consequently, it took me quite some time to get around to reading the copy I was sent but it has to be said that sometimes the buzz is justified which proved to be the case with Clay. There’s been quite a lot of interest over the past few years in nature writing thanks to the likes of Kathleen Jamie and Robert MacFarlane but Harrison is the first writer I’ve come across to incorporate it into fiction, and she does it beautifully. Just as she did with Clay, Harrison’s new novel looks at the relationship between humans and nature, this time through the lens of modern village life.
It opens with a dramatic prologue: two cars in a head-on collision, their contents spilled across the road. It’s clear that there are casualties but we don’t know who or how many. The rest of the novel takes us from early April, with its intimations of the joys of spring to come, to that May morning car crash just outside the village of Lodeshill. Once a thriving agricultural settlement, there are just a few farms left here now. Jamie might have preferred to apprentice himself to the local gamekeeper but instead turns to the enormous distribution centre built to take advantage of the old Roman road with its access to the motorway. Now in his nineties, his grandfather remembers the old ways and makes sure Jamie knows all about them. Howard and Kitty are incomers from Finchley. Howard, a roadie turned haulage contractor, feels like a fish out of water in the rural retirement that Kitty has longed for, and wonders why his wife has started going to church. Jack tramps the road to Lodeshill, on probation from his latest stint in prison for trespassing. Once a protestor – veteran of Twyford Down and the early Greenham days – he now lives off the land picking up farm-labouring jobs where he can and avoiding the police. Harrison paints a picture of modern rural life through the stories of these five characters, each with their differing relationship with nature.
Each chapter begins with notes from Jack’s journals, observations of spring’s progress. The descriptions which follow are often lyrically poetic, capturing moments in nature in a way which Kitty longs to do in her painting but can’t quite manage. These provide the back drop for the characters’ stories. Lots of issues are addressed here – a farmer’s suicide, Jamie’s soulless distribution job, the decline of the village pub, the dormitory village with its retired incomers – and at times it seemed that Harrison’s novel might descend into a dissection of the countryside’s woes but it’s handled deftly enough to avoid clunkiness or sentimentality with a nice thread of tension set up by the prologue. Although At Hawthorn Time doesn’t quite match Clay for me it offers an unusually clear-eyed view of modern village life for us townies. A little like The Archers before the new script team got their hands on it.