Monday, 10 December 2018

Book review: All Among the Barley, Melissa Harrison (2018)

I didn’t read much of this book I have to admit, but the reasons for that are complex and I will get to that later in this review. To summarise quickly, I found this novel to be mawkish and determinedly middle-brow. It seemed to embody a certain kind of English exceptionalism centred on rural life and the Great War. The author is an acclaimed novelist in the UK and writes a column for one of Rupert Murdoch’s vanity newsletters, the Times of London. She is completely unknown in Australia. I don’t know if she has a following in the US.

The drama centres on a girl named Edith June Mather who is aged probably in her mid-teens. The start of the novel (the part that I read) is located in the 1930s. Edith is at school and she helps around the farm but her main occupation seems to be reading novels. Promising material, you would think. She lives on a farm with her mother and father and brother Frank. Her sister Mary has married and has gone to live with her husband.

The first problem with this book lies with its use of technical language. Farmers might have more luck with this story than a city-slicker like me. I had to look up the word “rick” (meaning a pile of hay), for example, and could not identify the function of the big machine was that was brought to the farm in the early pages. It seemed to be a thresher but it was never explicitly stated. Harrison embeds the functioning of the farm into the narrative in a very intimate way, and if you are not au-fait with how a broadacre operation functions then you will be at a disadvantage when reading this book.

Edith’s status as an outsider was the thing that most pained me. I had come across the author on Twitter when she had posted a thread that contained a story I thought would be interesting to some of the people who follow me. I suggested to her that I take the thread and put it in a blogpost so that it could be shared more easily. Some of the people I had in mind to read the content are not very familiar with things that others find intuitive on social media, and I thought having a simple link to share would make it easier to propagate the message in the thread. But Harrison rounded on me and took offense that I would presume to offer any advice about how to use social media, how to blog, or how to write. I was dumbfounded by this reaction. I had merely been doing a kindness and had been punished in a most high-handed manner by someone whose idea of a hero for a novel is someone who loves words and is a bit of an outsider. Sort of like Lady Catherine de Bourgh depicting herself in a letter to a friend as Cinderella. The hypocrisy is as substantial as the irony is thick.

The affront I felt at Harrison’s treatment of me coloured my experience of her book, and I found it impossible to go on with it. In the end my impression of the book was that it is suitable for tweedy middle-aged women who buy Laura Ashley print bedspreads, watch ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and ‘Midsomer Murders’, and think that England is all about larks and fairies and old Saxon myths. As if the modern world were a thing to resent and that the passing of the old ways were something to regret. I think Harrison most likely voted ‘Leave’.

No comments: