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.