All Among The Barley
by Melissa Harrison
From the author of Costa-shortlisted and Baileys-longlisted At Hawthorn Time comes a major new novel. Set on a farm in Suffolk just before the Second World War, it introduces a girl on the cusp of adulthood.
Fourteen-year-old Edie Mather lives with her family at Wych Farm, where the shadow of the Great War still hangs over a community impoverished by the Great Depression. Glamorous outsider Constance FitzAllen arrives from London, determined to make a record of fading rural traditions and beliefs, and to persuade Edie’s family to return to the old ways rather than embrace modernity. She brings with her new political and social ideas – some far more dangerous than others.
For Edie, who has just finished school and must soon decide what to do with her life, Connie appears to be a godsend. But there is more to the older woman than meets the eye. As harvest time approaches and the pressures mount on the entire Mather family, Edie must decide whose version of reality to trust, and how best to save herself from disaster.
A masterful evocation of the rhythms of the natural world and pastoral life, All Among the Barley is also a powerful and timely novel about influence, the lessons of history and the dangers of nostalgia.
I had heard of Melissa Harrison before, or rather it’s better to say that I had read of Melissa Harrison’s book before I picked up this one. I requested it on NetGalley simply because it sounded like it was something I would dearly enjoy reading. I was proven correct, thankfully.
The story starts with Edie, a young girl, living on the family farm. The very start of the book, we are given a foreboding beginning to the story. Edith tells us about herself a little bit, she lived on the family family farm. The Wych farm belonged to her father and her grandfather before that. It probably belongs to her brothers’ sons now but certain circumstances have made it impossible for her to know of it.
With this starting statement, I was immediately intrigued. What could have happened? Well, we learn that in the coming chapters. Edie was not quite the ‘normal’ teenager by her own estimation, telling us that she loved books more than she loved interacting with other children. She was often chastised for leaving tasks half-done, lost in her head with her vivid imagination keeping her company rather the task at hand.
Set in 1933-34, Edith knows that people haven’t quite recovered from the Great War and that another war might loom ahead in the dreary future however for the time being, Edie and her family were more concerned with harvest because autumn was already here. The pressure to harvest among concerns of a drought is already rampant when to add spice to their lives, a newcomer enters the picture.
Constance FitzAllen arrives in the village from London, with her modern attire and her assurances of keeping a record of the ‘rural living’ and ‘preserving beliefs and traditions of said rural living’. Her arrival changes Edie’s life drastically. Just how Edie’s life is forever changed is something you would have to find out but I must say that Melissa Harrison’s writing is so wonderfully controlled and yet vibrant that I have a feeling that I would definitely be looking for a copy of her earlier book.
Constance FitzAllen’s initial project starts to sound a bit more sinister as the time passes. From wanting to note down and preserve the rural life, Connie starts to hint at a more political agenda. That coupled with hints of Edie’s parents being debt, their relationships with farm workers, Edie’s life include the sexual advances she faces from a boy, Edie’s rather forceful superstitions…all of it culminates into something really wonderful and nostalgic. I felt nostalgia despite never being in Britain or knowing about their drought or living on a farm.
I especially loved the details that Harrison provided in the book, the way the seasons changed or the way she described the village or the farm life. That made it very easy for me to imagine the whole thing in my mind, such a descriptive and absolutely gorgeous writing! Just read this as an example and you will see why I fell hard for Harrison’s writing.
In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes. Along the winding course of the River Stound the alder carrs were studded with earthstars and chanterelles and dense with the rich, autumnal stink of rot; but crossing Long Piece towards The Lottens the sky opened into austere, equinoctial blue, where flocks of peewits wheeled and turned, flashing their broad wings black and white. At dawn, dew silvered the spiders’ silk strung between the grass blades in our pastures so that the horses left trails where they walked, like the wakes of slow vessels in still water. At last, wintering fieldfares and thrushes stripped the berries from the lanes, and at night the four tall elms for which the farm was named welcomed their cold-weather congregations of rooks. The dew dampened the stubble in the parched cornfields, drawing from it a mocking green aftermath.
An absolutely intriguing and attention grabbing book that talks about the mental health of one of the characters, of country life in 1930s in England and about growing up. It’s all written and handled so damn well that I can’t help but love it. I would absolutely recommend it to people who love historical fiction and those who would favour a seemingly pastoral novel that turns into something else entirely by the time we finish the book.