crace-jim-harvest-cover-022613-margJim Crace’s Harvest, a shortlist contender for next week’s Man Booker Prize, is immensely difficult to review, at first glace a simple and somewhat narrow plot, but one which suggests dozens of vanishing points, valences–something reachable, but elusive. Crace’s indirect sympathy with the old biblical theme of the exile representing the everyman is what most resonated with the mockingbird in me; the fate of an entire community is determined by the fate of the marginalized and dispossessed.

There’s a passage in the Hebrew Scriptures–2 Samuel  24–where King David sins by taking a census of fighting-age men. Presumably, the logic of a census is that of control, counting up and quantifying one’s strength, saying “this is mine; it outnumbers what is others'”. The logic of quantifying and formulating places boundaries on the ‘I’, prevents it from receiving that which is foreign, surprising, gratuitous–it closes off the self. God’s response is to send a plague on Israel: if someone cannot be receptive to open-ended dependence upon an unpredictable providence in a positive way, suffering will force this receptivity, this renunciation of control, upon them. This is the same brutal logic of Providence and morality which kills Uzzah for catching a falling Ark of the Covenant; which exiles an entire nation for sending spies into the Promised Land.

We always want to be wary of reading too much religion into a book, but when an innocent guy’s hanging on a cross for the majority of the story [see below], we gain at least a little license for a religious reading. Jim Crace’s precise and piercing moral parable, Harvest, churns up the layers of group identities, psychological defenses, and spiritual pretensions to deliver a vision at once grim and strangely thrilling.

[Spoilers]: The unending human struggle to create, circumscribe, and defend identity is central to Harvest‘s world, a late feudal manor and village with a benevolent lord and a group of peasants working on common land. A barn catches fire the night that three visitors arrive and exercise squatter’s rights; the insular village immediately scapegoats them and hangs the two men upon the wooden cross of the unfinished church, a makeshift stocks to keep the innocent offenders alive but tortured for seven days, standing on tiptoes to keep from being choked by the cross’s neck-vice. They find the older man dead the next morning, and simultaneously a cousin of the manor’s lord, who has a superior claim on the land, arrives to take possession of it and turn it into a sheep farm, which will displace almost all the peasants in the process. Crace here displays a keen moral instinct: by trying to take possession of the land by excluding and even persecuting the three new arrivals, the villagers leave the realm of gracious tradition and enter a realm of right and possession. The law by which they exclude the visitors will in turn exclude them. ‘In judging, you judge yourselves’ is as good a summation of the book as any. By the measure you mete, so it shall be meted unto you.


In denying hospitality to the newcomers, they forfeit their own right to the land, which is predicated on the same welcome they’re refusing. They want to fence the outsiders out; they will be fenced out. And for actively persecuting and blaming the newcomers, they will later receive corporate blame, and will be exiled as a result.

Crace’s greatest strength here is the simplicity of his plot; he does not reach out for an epic vision so much as push, subtly yet insistently, on the boundaries of his narrowly-defined world. This allows for a remarkably tight plot, as well as a thematic coherence that’s rare in broader-scope novels. For example, the narrator only came to the land twelve years ago and wants to be an insider, but he is sort of an outsider too. Thus he can sympathize some with the accused criminals and, since he recognizes the gratuity of his own welcome, will ultimately be the only one in the village who can stay.

Or, again, the barn fire first started because three men were trying to smoke the lord’s doves out of their barn, since they had been feeding on the peoples’ grain in the fields. The doves are originally threat by impinging on the village’s carefully-controlled fields; this animosity toward the doves reprises itself in the hatred of the newcomers, who are seen as similar foragers, threats. The narrator then sees a vision of doves flying overhead with no wheat left in the fields to glean: the people are the doves who, in disenfranchising others, destroy their own right to provision. Then doves are also identified with “white consciences on wing”, the victims, testament against the villagers, who will themselves become birds, aloft and untethered, with no ground to feed upon. It’s also reminiscent of one of the earliest literary uses of the dove in Genesis 8: if the dove can find no food, if the exile cannot find sustenance, then the obliterating judgment of the flood has yet to subside. The narrator will later swear that his “arms feel feathery”, when he must become the exile.


The thematic crux of Harvest is the cross amidst an unfinished church. The exiles-turned-scapegoats at the beginning will hang there, receiving punishment, but the Church is incomplete; the weak have no refuge or welcome. One of them dies, and the survivor, after being freed, chops down the cross with an axe. Humans desire, need to scapegoat, pass of the blame, but in Crace’s world there is no one willing to fulfill this role. That is, the negative valence of the cross as our need to punish and scapegoat is present in Crace’s world; its positive valence of redemption is not. The scapegoat refuses punishment, and instead fells the cross and burns the entire property, saving only the manor.

Our narrator and protagonist, Walter Thirsk, will burn the manor himself and plow a furrow before leaving, his rebellion against the new, displacing world of power and monetary gain. And yet the book’s final hope isn’t in his last act of valor on behalf of the old order, but rather his voluntary self-exile. Before leaving, he beats his forehead against a boundary-stone three times, just enough to break the skin on his forehead; making the mark of Cain as a symbol of his guilt and entering the exile of Cain, the farmer forced to wander over all the earth for his wrongdoing.

Crace never sets his novel in time and only scarcely names his protagonist, something which makes his isolated, late-feudal world something with peculiar traction for our times. Perhaps it’s such a relevant and resonant work because we live in a world where the old ideologies, the Christendoms and nationalisms and ideals of the past are things we cannot quite buy into with unqualified sincerity. The old values have eroded; our prosperity feels shakier and shakier to many; and an overwhelming pressure toward individual self-actualization has untethered us from place, ideology, community. Our individual independence is precisely that, an inability to place ourselves at the mercy of anything. We love the curse of Adam, the ability to earn and be self-sufficient:

We do not dare to say we count ourselves beyond the Kingdom of God. But certainly we do not press to closely to His bosom; rather, we are at His fingertips. He touches us, but only just… No, we dare to think and even say among ourselves, there’s be no barley if we left it to the Lord, not a single blade of it… So we continue not irreligiously but independently…


Grace interrupts at the moment of exile; when we are forced out of this calculus and earning and forced to be vagabonds, at the mercy of others. By choosing to leave, our narrator embraces this mercy, and the only hope for any resolution to the story is deferred to the future, the possibilities of the three exiles finding welcome instead of rejection, a welcome putting an end to the cycle of violence and judgment and retribution and burning (Gen 18!) which Crace explores so harrowingly.

In his closing line, Crace explicitly incorporates his readers into his narrator: “I have to carry on alone until I finally reach wherever is awaiting me, until I gain wherever is awaiting us.” To a lost, lonely, and anxious character and readership, realizing weakness and guilt (assuming the mark of Cain) is the greatest feat of which we are capable, placing ourselves at the mercy of an arbitrary, ultimately gratuitous fate. Earning and independence are deconstructed, and what remains is a bare and naked dependence upon providence. That this providence will prove welcoming and, indeed, “awaiting” is the final hope of the book, but the shape and form this providence will take is left ambiguous. Stark morality and judgment pose the question; the answer is something different altogether.