Tag Archives: At Hawthorn Time

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison: Dark clouds gather

Cover imageBoth 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.

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part One

Cover imageMuch jostling for position at the top of August’s list of new titles, three of which I’ve already read but not yet reviewed. I’m starting with Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free which is up there up there alongside Ingenious Pain and Pure, his two best novels for me. Set in Somerset just after the turn of the eighteenth century, it’s about Captain John Lacroix whose health has been so devastated by the disastrous campaign against Napoleon in Spain that he goes on the run rather than return to the front once recovered. ‘Taut with suspense, this is an enthralling, deeply involving novel by one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers’ say the publishers and I’d have to agree.

Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You is also set in Somerset, this time in 1970s Weston-Super-Mare where ten-year-old Eustace finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher. Lessons of another kind are learned when Eustace enrols on a holiday course in Scotland, apparently. ‘Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives’ according to the blurb. I’ve long been a fan of Gale’s writing, going right back to The Aerodynamics of Pork in the ‘80s.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is also a coming-of-ageCover image novel with much to say about the dangers of nostalgia and nationalism. Set on a Suffolk farm in 1933, it’s about Edie, to whose family the farm belongs, and Constance, who arrives from London to record the area’s traditions and beliefs. Edie finds herself attracted by their visitor’s sophistication but it seems Constance may have a secret or two. I’m a great fan of both At Hawthorn Time and Clay but Harrison’s surpassed herself with this one.

Claire Fuller’s previous novels Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons were a delight and I’m pleased to report Bitter Orange turns out to be one too. In the summer of  1969, Frances is drawn into a relationship with her fellow tenants of a crumbling country mansion: ‘But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever’ says the blurb, neatly setting the scene.

I’m ending this batch with the winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award of which I’ve Cover imagelearned to take notice. Described as a darkly comic thriller, Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square is about Jean Mason whose friends and acquaintances tell her she has a doppelgänger. Jean sets about tracking down her likeness, becoming obsessed with this other woman who has been seen haunting Bellevue Square. ‘A peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants–the regulars of Bellevue Square–are eager to contribute to Jean’s investigation. But when some of them start disappearing, she fears her alleged double has a sinister agenda. Unless Jean stops her, she and everyone she cares about will face a fate much stranger than death’ according to the publishers. As is often the case with Canadian books, I first came across this one at Naomi’s excellent Consumed by Ink blog.

That’s it for the first selection of August’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you wish to know more. Second instalment soon but not before my Man Booker wishlist…

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison: An everyday story of country folk

Cover imageMelissa 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.

Books to Look Out For in April 2015

Cover imageSpring’s on the horizon at last here in the UK and with it comes a fair few temptations in the publishing schedules, several of which stand out for me. Melissa Harrison’s debut, Clay, was much praised for her lyrical descriptions of nature when it was published in 2012. I didn’t get around to it until recently but the writing is very beautiful, all wrapped up in a poignant story. I’m hoping for more of the same with At Hawthorn Time which follows four villagers through one spring month in which their lives intersect. Ali Smith picked Clay as one of her books of the year, apparently, should you need more encouragement.

Also eagerly anticipated is Liza Klaussman’s second novel Villa America. Her debut, Tigers in Red Weather, was one of those books about which there was a great deal of pre-publication brouhaha, justified in this case. It was set in a slightly Gatsbyesque world – although at the end of the Second World War – and this new novel actually features the Fitzgeralds entertained, alongside the likes of Picasso, dos Passos and Hemingway, by Gerald and Sara Murphy in their villa on the French Riviera until a stranger arrives and the dream shatters.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s writing inhabits a much more work-a-day world. She’s one of those quietly accomplished writers whose books are to be savoured. In her last novel, The Cold Eye of Heaven, an old man looks back over his life as he lies dying. Memory is also a strong theme in The Lives of Women as Elaine, home from New York to live with her invalid father, watches his neighbours move out remembering the way in which an American divorcee shattered the dynamics of this small estate back in the ‘70s, teaching the women to drink Martinis and loosen their grip on their wifely duties. It sounds excellent.

Set in another small community but entirely different by the sound of it, Christopher Bollen’s Orient is compared to both A. M. Homes and Lionel Shriver in the publisher’s blurb – no pressure, there then. Set on Long Island in the eponymous small town much visited by artists and rich New Yorkers fleeing the city heat, it sounds like a thriller. When a local takes in an orphaned drifter, strange things begin to happen arousing the town’s suspicions. Thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea but I’m a sucker for smalltown American novels.

There may well be a touch of the thriller about Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono. On the same day a retired Parisian police inspector receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter he finds a stranger waiting for him at his apartment. Professor Tadashi Omura tells Inspector Jovert his extraordinary life story which has surprising parallels with Jovert’s own. It sounds intriguing and comes from Tinder Press who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.Cover image

I wonder if Watertones will be piling up copies of Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky featuring as it does a bibliophile Russian oligarch. Said oligarch is planning to woo the already-married Natalia with a spanking new mansion in ‘Chelski’. At the heart of the house is to be a large library stocked with first editions from the Russian literary canon. It’s narrated by the Serbian immigrant bookseller commissioned to track down these treasures, no matter how expensive they might be. The impoverished bookseller – is there any other kind? – finds himself in a glittering yet dangerous world.

That’s it for April. A click on a title will take you to Waterstones website where a more detailed synopsis will be revealed. Happy reading!