Saturday, January 25, 2020

I’m Back, Thanks to Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley

When I unceremoniously stopped writing posts for this blog in mid-2014, I knew my absence was temporary. Even so, I wondered for more than five years what would bring me back. I nearly returned a year or so ago thanks to Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 1, in Frank Wynne’s grittily wonderful translation, but time felt like too much of a problem. Time feels like (slightly) less of a problem now, so when I started reading Melissa Harrison’s All Among theBarley on New Year’s Day, I knew it was time to resurrect the blog. I bought the novel last year on the recommendation of a helpful salesclerk at Waterstones Piccadilly: all he really had to say was “crushing tragedy.” I do love a good crushing tragedy (the salesclerk likely intuited that based on my other purchases) and Harrison’s beautiful and quietly brutal coming-of-age story set in rural England, between the world wars, does everything I like a novel to do.

Edie Mather, fourteen years old, tells her own story in language dense with the flora and fauna at and around her home, Wych Farm. On the first page of the prologue, she’s lying awake at night, “remembering the day the Hunt ran me down in Hulver Wood,” adding in the next paragraph:

“As I walked, a white owl kept pace with me, drifting silently at head-height on the other side of the hedge; perhaps it hoped I would startle some blood-warm creatures from its tangled base.”

A landrail, a.k.a. corncrake.
There are plenty of unsettling elements here: the apparent insomnia, the Hunt, and the eerie owl who seems to be seeking out a warm-blooded snack. Harrison has already established a lot: Edie is clearly telling her story when she’s older (I’ll avoid major spoilers but will say it turns out her narration is made many decades later) and there’s already a very strong sense of nature, hinting at the relationships between predators and prey. Cycles of life for humans, animals, and plants, including crops, will be an important motif throughout All Among the Barley, and Harrison’s choices can be very colorful. I wasn’t familiar with all the plants and creatures – Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon and fritillaries among them – but somehow that gave the text even more mysterious allure than bits of witchcraft. (Maybe nature is the ultimate witchcraft? I think so.) There are also landrails, birds I wasn’t familiar with; Edie cares for one, which is very sweet but oh, we know it won’t end well.

The same – both mysterious allure and “it won’t end well” – goes for writer Constance FitzAllen’s presence in Elmbourne. She’s come to learn about rural life. Connie’s appearance in the area, where she interviews the locals, bring in an outsider who exposes differences of opinion on “whither England?” Early in the book she declares that “soon the peasant class will all be gone” and Edie tells Connie much later that she shouldn’t expect “old ballads and harvest traditions; the olden days are long gone.” In many senses, they are, though the past is complicated: in these between-the-war years, fallen soldiers are still remembered. Alongside those memories, though, is resentment toward certain outsiders. Again, I won’t reveal much other than to say that nearby squatters provide an opportunity for Edie to hear and discuss prejudice and anti-immigrant demagoguery.

This, too, fits with the predator/prey motif (unsurprisingly, the word “parasite” comes up, too), particularly since Harrison so skillfully describes various types of communities and circles that nest and overlap: Wych Farm, the Mather family, neighbors, the nearest town, the country, the rest of the world. What’s particularly admirable about All Among the Barley is that Harrison’s story of Edie’s maturation reflects both her insularity – she’s a bright, dreamy child who loves reading, traces witch marks, feels different from others, and lives in the country – as well as her interactions with her siblings, parents, Connie (an outsider), and a rather predatorial suitor. Most remarkable, Edie is a literary character who bears a lot of meaning but still feels very real.

Differences are what lead to the crushing tragedy the kind man at Waterstones mentioned, and that tragedy, at least in my reading, ripples through nearly everything in the book, from Edie’s fate (revealed at the end of the novel) to a way of life that is weakened and susceptible to demagoguery. Those tragedies are accompanied by cycles based in biological nature – crops, clutches of landrails, growing up, adolescent suitors – as well as cycles of a historical nature. We know what the demagoguery in the book presages, less than a decade after the book’s primary action as well as later, now. I don’t believe All Among the Barley is currently available in the U.S., though hope it’s on the way.

Disclaimers: Although I bought my copy of All Among the Barley, I did receive a copy of Vernon Subtex 1, which I mentioned briefly in this post, from MacLehose Press at a bookfair in 2018. Vernon is available in the U.S. from FSG. Many things about Vernon struck me, particularly Despentes depiction of aging.