All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison: Dark clouds gather

Cover image Both Melissa Harrison’s previous novels are notable for their vividly evocative descriptions of the English countryside, the kind of thing readers are treated to in the very best nature writing. This combined with a dollop of sharp social observation made At Hawthorn Time stand out for me. All Among the Barley goes several steps further with a powerful piece of storytelling set in the early ‘30s when a young woman turns up in the East Anglian village of Elmbourne, inveigling herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl.

The Mathers have worked Wych Farm for generations. Edie has known little else for her entire fourteen years. She caught diphtheria as a young child, almost dying from it, and it seems that her mother is determined to keep her safe at home. She’s a bright child, more often found reading than doing her chores, too clever to have made much in the way of friends. In 1933, the year of the most beautiful autumn Edie can remember, times are troubled as the Depression bites. Edie knows little of that but she does know that her father is in the grip of worry about grain prices and that John, the farm’s horseman, and he are at political loggerheads. When Constance FitzAllen appears in the village, asking questions and professing a love for the old rural ways, Edie senses that life could be something other than the occasional trip to the cinema with her mother, visits to her grandparents and a future of marriage with babies soon to follow. As the farming year wears on, harvest becomes the urgent focus, all hands put to bringing it in and safely storing it. Almost in celebration, Constance calls a meeting in the village pub, promising free beer with dramatic results.

Harrison unfolds her story through Edie who is looking back to the events of over half a century ago. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie is the perfect narrator for this story, flattered by the attentions of Constance but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside are neatly conveyed, revealing a nostalgia for a world that never really existed rather than concern for those who live there. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism that are gathering throughout Europe. I’m not suggesting that those times exactly mirror our own but it was hard to read this novel without the spectre of the EU referendum and its fallout popping up in my mind. For those feeling less doomy about all that, there are a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy. Here are two favourites:

The woods and spinneys lay in our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes  

The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks

 An impressive novel, then. Harrison seems to go from strength to strength.

18 thoughts on “All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison: Dark clouds gather”

  1. It seems like she has found her niche. How would you rate this one compared to her previous two? After reading your review of her former novel, I see you preferred Clay there. She does sound an author I ought to try.

    1. Yes, I preferred the writing in Clay, I think, although its some time since I read it. All Among the Barley combines both storytelling and gorgeous descriptions of the natural world while ringing some uncomfortable bells about the current political climate here in the UK. I’d say it’s my favourite but Clay would be a good place to start, Claire.

  2. Really loved ‘At Hawthorn Time’ but I’ve struggled to finish this book. Maybe it was the telling, from Edith’s point of view – as she’s obviously naive and, for all her alleged cleverness, not really aware of the world outside the narrow confines of her farm (odd I thought for a 14 year old) – but it didn’t hold me.

    1. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I suspect it her lack of knowledge might more accurately reflect a 14-year-old’s in the ’30s, particularly one whose mother had been so protective.

  3. This does sound excellent, I love the idea of the setting and the traditions of the countryside. I haven’t read any of Melissa Harrison’s novels but have come across her before in the seasonal essay collections Autumn, Spring etc.

  4. You seem to do such a great job of keeping up with various contemporary authors: I admire that dedication. It also makes for satisfying reading from the margins, seeing a close reader observe an author’s development over time. I hope, when I get around to reading some of them, that I remember to come back and see what you’ve had to say!

  5. It does sound very good. Like Ali, I find myself drawn to stories set in the 1930s or ’40s, so the period really appeals to me. It’s good to hear that are some observations on society here as I thought that aspect worked very well in Clay, particularly the bits on the community.

      1. Whoops, my computer showed these comments didn’t take, which is why you’ve got 2 almost identical comments from me! I thought I’d not left any comments at all in the end. Please feel free to delete one 🙂 Pesky technology….

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: