Natural writer stumbles on a village path
At Hawthorn Time By Melissa Harrison Bloomsbury, 288pp, $29.99 From the geological X-rays in oil paint of Paul Cezanne to the dry yet teeming biodiverse codes underpinning the poetry of Les Murray, those most successful at translating the forms of nature into art have always been strikingly original practitioners.
When English writer Melissa Harrison published her first novel, Clay, in 2013, she announced herself as a new voice with a touch of the uncanny about her who potentially could sit among such voices one day. Her strong suit was immediately obvious: a lyrical, not just descriptive, talent for nature writing in the context of an environmentally damaged world.
It is not surprising, therefore, that her second novel, At Hawthorn Time, comes with recom-
June 13-14, 2015 mendations from writers of the calibre of Ali Smith and Robert Macfarlane. The novel begins promisingly, with a character who straightaway feels like an ideal vehicle for Harrison’s gifts.
Jack is an itinerant worker wandering the green margins of loud, post-industrial, 21st-century England. He is getting on — you could call him, in a way, an ageing hippie — but more unusually he is a delicate, neo-wayfaring soul whose farm-to-farm life of picking fruit and various types of fieldwork immediately sets up a luminous contrast with the more sedentary and standardised world around him.
There is a pleasure but also a dark potency in the wisdom Harrison accesses through this down-at-heel, seer-like figure. Jack knows the score, and we suspect it is how Harrison would like it to be known, too.
He walks north from London into an attenuated countryside, reflecting on the land enclosures of the 1700s and how they have led to him always being in danger of trespass, if only for following the ancient cart tracks of history. By this and other memorable juxtapositions — Jack illicitly milking cows at night under the iridium flare of satellites; inland gulls stretching their wings as an A320 airliner roars even higher up — the reader quickly understands At Hawthorn Time to be driven by similar environmental tensions to Clay. We delight not only in Harrison’s botanical and meteorological erudition as it is displayed in Jack’s gentle thinking, but particularly in her sharply observed depictions of the less organic countryside beside cooling towers and motorways, where a lack of human regard leaves room for an unforeseen wilderness both impure and cleansing, with its lack of ‘‘signposted walks and intelligible views’’.
If there was a knock on Harrison’s first novel it was with respect to certain technical demands of the form, such as characterisation and narrative composition. Unfortunately, as At Hawthorn Time progresses we begin to detect some similar problems. Switching from the initially compelling consciousness of Jack to a portrait of the domestic world that threatens him, we meet Howard and Kitty, a baby-boomer couple who have moved to the village of Lodeshill and are having a rather inevitable relationship meltdown. Given Harrison’s interest in cultural intersections within the landscape, this shift in perspective is of course a cogent enough move.
But in the light of their conventional middleclass mindset, for Howard and Kitty’s situation to be as illuminating as Jack’s it would need to be furnished with an equally arresting and detailed taxonomy. Unfortunately, Harrison doesn’t quite manage that. Instead her rendition of the couple’s inner lives seems rather snagged on stereotypes of their demographic. Howard fixes old radios, for instance, and Kitty dabbles in art.
Redemption is partially provided by a third plot strand focused on village lad Jamie Dixon. Jamie works just off the motorway in an online storage and dispatch facility but is also a protege of the village gamekeeper. His sense of place is numinous, sylvan, but unaffected by genteel grand designs. His muse is as much the muscle