ATTEMPTING to capture the atmosphere of rural England in the 1930s must have been as tricky as trying to tiptoe across a swampy field after a downpour trying to keep the water out of your boots.
How do you pick your way between gushing pastoral sentimentality and brutal mud-soaked realism?
Somehow Melissa Harrison manages to avoid those pitfalls in All Among The Barley, her third novel, a subtle and haunting tale published in 2018 that avoids becoming a cloying tribute to times past and instead explores timely and trenchant themes that resonate down the decades.
The story takes us back to the glorious autumn of 1933, when 13-year-old Edie Mather introduces us to the realities of life on the 60-acre Suffolk farm that has always been her home.
Like all good narrators, Edie is on a journey of discovery herself, particularly once the flamboyant Constance FitzAllen freewheels into her life on a bright red bicycle.
But where so many nature writers would have found it hard not to get totally bogged down in pedantic intricacies, Harrison manages to weave her descriptions seamlessly into the unfolding plot, so that the series of vivid snapshots builds into an unflinchingly frank but never depressing portrait that is as poetic as it is nuanced.
There’s a heady cocktail of different influences and echoes here, from Cider With Rosie and HE Bates to Thomas Hardy and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. But Harrison’s prose lacks the tragic inevitability of Hardy or the brutality and brooding menace of Sunset Song, for example, despite capturing the timeless connection between farm workers and their land with a similar intensity at times.
Connie’s curiosity about the old ways of farming provides a perfect opportunity for us to find out more about the impact of the Great War on the local community and the financial and family pressures which emanate from eking out a living so dependent on the vagaries of the weather.
Bookish loner Evie may be well read, but she is confused about a lot of things – witchcraft and superstition, her dislike of Alf Rose’s kisses, her embarrassment about her father’s drinking; yet for all her day-dreaming, she is a sharp-eyed observer of the human condition, capturing the rhythms and traditions of rural life in a fresh and vibrant way.
The folk song from which the book takes its title is a glorious evocation of harvest time:
The wheat is like a rich man, it’s sleek and well-to-do;
The oats are like a pack of girls, they’re thin and dancing too;
The rye is like a miser, both sulky, lean and small,
Whilst the ripe and bearded barley is the monarch of them all.
All among the barley, who would not be blithe,
While the ripe and bearded barley is smiling on the scythe.
But against the backdrop of this high point of the farming year are unnerving glimpses of more sinister influences too, not just of the reality of rural poverty and the gruelling oppression of the menial household tasks undertaken by womenfolk like Edie’s mother, but the conflicting social pressures between those calling for progress and others resistant to change.
At one level we have a lyrical coming-of-age story, but at such an uncertain time in human history, a wave of nationalism, xenophobia and anti-semitism is sweeping Europe, and Edie’s world is not immune to the political reverberations shaking wider society.
She is also not quite sure what to make of the stylish, pushy, disarming and persistent Connie – and nor are we, or the other bemused locals.
One may not have to look too hard to find parallels between that troubled decade of the Great Depression and our current era, as we emerge from 2020 battered by the coronavirus pandemic, political upheaval and Brexit fatigue.
It wouldn’t do to give too much away about the plot, but although the pace is a gentle one, this is a powerful and unsettling tale, and none the less so for being steeped so convincingly in the quotidian routines of a different age.
All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison is available from Bloomsbury in hardback or paperback, and through her website.