The recent period of economic crisis and its impact on the world, the shifts in power, the new areas of enterprise, have spawned a huge quantity of non-fiction books but, as yet, not quite as many novels. Perhaps this is because fiction is so particular and the crisis is so generalised, or because fiction is supposed to take a wide, historical view, and the present is too close.
Jim Crace's striking new novel (he says it will be his last) takes on the present by grasping at its root. Harvest is set at a distant point in English history, apparently the early 16th century. On the surface this is very much not a book about now - it's a historical novel, complete with a plot that at times contorts itself to fit known facts rather than being a purely imaginative exercise - but its concerns are contemporary. Set around the time of English land reforms now referred to generally as "the enclosures", it describes a moment of deep conflict that continues to resonate today. In cities, processes of gentrification clear out the poor to make way for investment-grade housing; all over the world, migrant populations are forced away from home to where the work is. Examples of modern-day enclosures are manifold and often controversial, but the events described in Harvest are a distant mirror.
There's a lot packed into the plot, although it unfolds in a short space of time. Strangers arrive in an English village, and are accused of arson. In an apparently unconnected event, the landowner's tyrannical cousin arrives to make good his claim on the land. From the fabric of these two occurrences, Crace stitches together a plot that compresses what was probably in reality a gradual process of disenfranchisement into just a few days, as the villagers' way of life is first threatened then destroyed.
The novel's distinctive narration belongs to a villager, Walter Thirsk, who witnesses the destruction of th