Reading Jim Crace for the first time

06 February 2013

Are you new to Crace’s writing? Here’s why you should start reading him now!

Put simply, a new novel by Jim Crace is an event. The sort us bookies get all excited about.

A year ago the same enthusiastic feather-ruffling that now pervades bookshops and newspaper literary desks was happening in the Picador offices. Harvest was delivered at the beginning of 2012 and the office was a-buzz for the latest work from one of our greatest and best-loved authors.

But I’d never read Jim Crace. This was greeted with some horror in the office (you get used to this in publishing, it goes with the very well-read territory) and there were calls for me to start at the beginning, or, to at least get Quarantine and Being Dead under my belt before I open Harvest. But it was to my delight that Kate Harvey, Picador Editorial Director, long-term Crace aficionado and Jim’s editor, handed me the manuscript and asked me to be her second pair of eyes. She wanted a reader who didn’t know Jim’s previous work – she wanted to know what it was like to come to Jim fresh, and so it was: Harvest was my introduction to the work of a man whose first book came out the year before I was born.

Harvest is an extraordinary novel. Set in an unnamed part of rural England in an unnamed time (though for the agriculturally aware of you, we know this is pre-enclosure farming), it tracks the disintegration of one village over the course of seven days. It is a hypnotic story of land pillaged and communities scattered, of the influences of myth, suspicion and the alarming encroachment of modernity. 

Seasoned Jim Crace fans will recognise his highly stylised prose, but for newcomers the lyricism and rhythm of his writing is quite astonishing: it is songlike, lilting.

Here are the first few lines of the book. Smoke from a fire has been spotted – a sign that there are strangers on the village borders:

Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light, or they at least surprise those of us who’ve not been up to mischief in the dark. Our land is topped and tailed with flames. Beyond the frontier of our fields and in the shelter of our woods, on common ground, where yesterday there wasn’t anyone who could give rise to smoke, some newcomers, by the lustre of an obliging reapers’ moon, have put up their hut – four rough and ready walls, a bit of roof – and lit the more outlying of these fires. Their fire is damp. They will have thrown on wet greenery in order to procure the blackest plume, and thereby not be missed by us. It rises in a column that hardly bends or thins until it clears the canopies. It says, New neighbours have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.

Rereading these lines now feels electric. I find my reaction to this opening paragraph is as strong as when I read a favourite piece of poetry – it is dizzying, it makes my skin tingle.

And so the novel continues. Throughout, Jim’s prose echoes the rhythms of an ancient country existence. His sentences weave and nod to the modulations of a folk ballad, like the old tunes and ditties ingrained in every child of the village; they feel vital, and they only stand to make the village’s collapse more tragic. In a community where every spring ‘we bump our children’s heads against the boundary stones, so that they’ll not forget where they and all of us belong’, leaving home is unimaginable. Harvest is a song to rural life, to the cycles of the seasons, and ultimately to the villagers’ instinct for survival when the life they know is threatened.

Having read and raved about Harvest, I headed next for Being Dead. I couldn’t quite work out how this author, whose writing felt so very much of the place he wrote in Harvest, could approach the subject matter of Being Dead – a modern day middle-aged couple brutally murdered during a rare moment of tenderness in the sand dunes on a beach – and succeed. But he does, and if you’re new to Jim, I think Being Dead is a fantastic companion piece to Harvest. Together they demonstrate Jim’s scope as a writer, but also his preoccupations, and there’s nothing more thrilling than recognising an author for the details they’ve picked out in a story.

Every time we publish a new book by an established author there’s anxiety that a new generation of readers might feel daunted by a literary career that’s too big to catch up on. Jim’s track record speaks for itself. He is the author of ten previous books, including Continent, which won the 1986 Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, Quarantine, winner of the 1998 Whitbread Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Being Dead, winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award.

But don’t worry. Just read Harvest. It’s a fantastic introduction to a writer just waiting to be discovered – I’ve never read a book like it, and I doubt I ever will.

 

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