Melissa Har­ri­son All Among the Bar­ley

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

“Last night I lay awake again, re­mem­ber­ing the day the Hunt ran me down in Hul­ver Wood when I was just a girl.” The tang of fore­bod­ing in this novel’s open­ing line owes some­thing to its echo of “Last night I dreamt I went to Man­der­ley again.” Melissa Har­ri­son surely in­tended the reader should be put in mind of Daphne du Mau­rier’s Gothic Re­becca.

The “I” who lay awake is Edith, known as Edie, and she’s re­mem­ber­ing, across the dis­tance of 60 years, the sum­mer of

1934. Edie’s Man­der­ley is Wych Farm, her child­hood home in ru­ral Suf­folk. The Great War is 16 years past but the farm and dis­trict are still in its long shadow. Farmhands, and men in gen­eral, are in short sup­ply; fields and whole farms lie fal­low. At 14 and just out of school, Edie is keenly aware of the malaise but it’s all she’s ever known. Her world ex­tends only as far as the near­est mar­ket town.

That is, un­til Con­stance FitzAllen ar­rives from Lon­don. Wear­ing trousers and rid­ing a bi­cy­cle, she in­stalls her­self in the lo­cal vil­lage for the sum­mer to make a study of “coun­try ways”. (“Such a shame the old tra­di­tions are pass­ing away.”) Con­nie soon over­comes the lo­cals’ wari­ness to be­come a fix­ture in farm­house kitchens and the wheel­wright’s shop, prob­ing for old recipes and di­alect words to in­clude in the book she’s writ­ing. She claims Edie as a par­tic­u­lar friend and in­for­mant and, un­der Con­nie’s in­flu­ence and the pull of pu­berty, the young girl’s world tilts towards the dark.

Har­ri­son, a gifted na­ture-writer, im­bues the farm’s sum­mer fields with an omi­nous golden glow: the sun set­ting on a way of life. Con­nie is cast as the for­eign body around whom Wych Farm’s woes ac­crue, yet, as writ­ten, she’s a stilted and un­con­vinc­ing im­pe­tus. The dis­tur­bance within Edie and her fam­ily is enough to drive the novel’s grow­ing sense of men­ace. The theme of na­tivism, em­bod­ied in Con­nie and meant to re­ver­ber­ate with the present, seems grafted on rather than in­te­gral to the plot.

From the start, Edie hints at a mys­te­ri­ous dis­lo­ca­tion that be­fell her at the end of that sum­mer. Wych Farm, she says, crank­ing her mem­ory back, “is some­where not far from here, I be­lieve”. The twist that sev­ers her from her old home, de­liv­ered in an epi­logue, will sur­prise the reader who’s been privy to Edie’s prob­lem­atic po­ten­tial. FL

Blooms­bury Cir­cus, 352pp, $29.99

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