Nat­u­ral writer stum­bles on a vil­lage path

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gre­gory Day

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.