Is Harvest Crace’s best?
Jonathan Ruppin on the mesmerising novel from a long-admired writer.
Jonathan Ruppin, previously Web Editor for Foyles, and now literary agent, talks about his lifelong love of Jim Crace's writing.
I first read Jim Crace when making my way through the 1997 Booker Prize shortlist. Much as I admired the eventual winner, The God of Small Things, it was Quarantine, with its shades of tone, judicious vocabulary and distinctive cadences, that entranced me:
And like a leopard he paused frequently, not to rest but to sniff the air as if he could locate – beyond the sulphur rising on the valley's thermals – that a caravan of camels had passed, that there were gazelles feeding on the thorns, that there was someone dying in the wilderness ahead.
I've lost count of how many copies I've bought, having loaned it and never had it back. I do remember being approached at Foyles by John Cleese, who was looking for books on religion, and suppressing the urge – in hindsight, probably for the best – to recommend it as a book about a young man who's not the Messiah…
My first encounter with Crace began inauspiciously. I was working at Dillons in Bradford and had just closed up; I shooed away a man peering through the door. It turned out to be him, trying to see if his book was on display: this I found out when I went on to the nearby Waterstones to attend his event that evening, during which I took it upon myself to suggest, impertinently, that his interpretation of his own book was incorrect.
I had the opportunity to redeem myself later when it transpired that his then publisher (not Picador!) had booked him into a hotel in Leeds, without giving him any idea how to get back there after public transport had stopped, and I was able to offer him a lift. His generous sharing of wisdom about the art of fiction, as I lost us in a new one-way system on the outskirts of Leeds, is a treasured experience.
Quarantine is still a novel I cherish, although re-reading it a couple of years ago, I was startled to realise that his gifts, evident though they've been since in his debut, have become ever more refined with each new book. Of those written since, it is The Pesthouse that I most often press into others’ hands, usually with the assertion that Cormac McCarthy's The Road, an eerily similar dystopia published just weeks later, got the plaudits and the readers that ought to have been Crace's. Arcadia, with the lifelong span of its narrative, remains an early favourite.
As I always do, I eked out Harvest over several days, deferring, just a little, the excruciating wait for his next. I lost myself in its rhythms and its language, breathing in its atmosphere of damp earth, weary toil and cowed stoicism. I was rapt by a narrative voice whose cautious formality betokened a man unused to being heard, wary of who might be listening, dutiful in his recording for posterity.
Is it Crace's best? Quite possibly. The gradations of his achievements are fine indeed: few writers have a back catalogue so devoid of makeweights. The settings and stories vary wildly, but each confirms that a story is made most memorable by the manner of its telling: Crace is the quintessential storyteller.