A summer between the wars
Rural lass recalls
I wrote this haiku immediately after reading Melissa Harrisons latest novel All Among the Barley, and tweeted it to her to let her know the admiration I felt for what I think is, to date, her magnum opus. I hesitate to use the word enjoy, because, although this is a magnificent piece of writing, it is, in my opinion, an uncomfortable journey for the reader. Yes, my haiku is an adequate description
Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018
of the book, in as much as we spend a year in early 1930s rural England with the memories of Edith Mather, the sensitive and intelligent, teenage daughter of smallholder George Mather. Set as it is, the rhythm and texture of the farming year pervade the book but this in no way overwhelms the reader or the plot; it is an essential part of the narrative. The writing as a whole is lyrical, especially so when referring to the natural world.
“The bluebells would come out in Hulver Wood and our bees would wake and begin to forage; the grass would grow tall in the hay meadows and be mown, the peas would blossom once more and become sweet. And the cornfields would be green, then grow tall and turn golden; and so would pass the next year, and the next.”
It is hard to review this book without creating spoilers, so I am going to be deliberately opaque, but hopefully give you enough information to make you want to pick up, or buy a copy and immerse yourself in this lost world, that Melissa has stunningly recreated. My arithmetic places the story in 1933 or 1934, a time of great upheaval in Europe and the UK. The rise of the unions, a deep distrust of foreigners, be they incomers or immigrants, overlaid on the, to some, fresh memories of the Great War, the insidious rise of fascism, and, despite burgeoning women’s rights, a still, overtly patriarchal society, are the bricks on which this book is built. The story is based firmly around the Mather family and Edie’s interactions with her recently married sister, her brother, her grandparents, her long-suffering mother and her prone to drunkenness father. Add to this mix dark hints of witchcraft and a less than stable deceased grandmother, an unrequited relationship between Edie’s’ mother and the farm’s horseman, an overly amorous friend of her brother, a tincture of racism, the arrival of Constance, a liberated lady journalist from London, and you have the makings of a hugely compelling and gripping tale.
All is not as it seems and the twists and turns of this deceptively simple story will keep you by turns, charmed, horrified, puzzled and perhaps at times, in tears. I defy you to guess the ending. It caught me totally by surprise. I can only reiterate what I said at the beginning of this review, it may not be a comfortable read, but it is a magnificent piece of writing that deserves a huge audience. I recommend it to you most strongly.