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Seeds of doubt

From the opening lines of Harvest, there is a sense of impending change.

As it inevitability grows, it becomes doom-laden. "Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires" announce both that strangers have arrived and claimed a right to stay by lighting a fire in their rough shelter and that the dovecote at the manor house is ablaze.

These turn out to be omens of the death of this small agricultural community. The nameless village, its few fields ringed by woods and hills which hide it from the wider world, is clearly placed in England but emblematic of rural life at the margins of existence all over the world.

Set just as common ground and strips of cultivation were being enclosed by landowners keen to reap much greater profits from sheep, it has a timeless quality that gives the central themes a continuing relevance, as immigration policy moves up the political agenda. This is achieved through a sparse structure and universal characters, but most of all through an extraordinarily metrical prose whose cadences echo across the centuries.

The tale is told through Walter Thirsk, an incomer who arrived as right-hand man to the Master and married into the village.

Accepted into the community by taking his share of the relentless work ("Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger"), as an outsider, he is regarded with suspicion as soon as things go wrong.

How distrust of the stranger can quickly descend into unjustified blame, violence and revenge is explored in the events of just seven days from the celebration of the harvest to complete destruction of an age-old way of life. Although descriptions of the natural world are lovingly detailed and there is a recognition of the nobility of feeding one's self and family by one's own hard work, this is no mere elegy.

Crace is embarking on well-tilled literary ground here, chronicling certainties being rent asunder by unstoppable forces of change and pinpointing the potential for chaos beneath a bucolic idyll. By giving Thirsk an overview of his cottage neighbours' desire for the certainties of village life to continue undisturbed, the powerlessness of the Master, who has no sway over the cousin who has inherited the estate, and the injustice of the way three strangers have been treated, Crace explores of the murky interface between innocence and ignorance with a clinical lack of squeamishness.

But there is more to this deceptively simple tale than a beautifully crafted new take on the Garden of Eden.

Thirsk, the last to leave, recognises that, as the villagers depart, refugees from their own lands, they stand to gain as much as they lose. "The lane is telling me I should not fear the futures that it holds. I'll not go hungry anyway. Once I tire of hazels, I can blacken my tongue on bramble berries and rouge my lips with elders and with sloes."

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