This post is part of a weekly series in which Atlantic staffers offer their takes on the six novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
On a Thursday afternoon in August, the deadest of months, the British novelist Jim Crace tweeted. Well, The Paris Review tweeted for him.
“The trick of fiction was to remember to turn all my logs into donkeys.” —Jim Crace http://t.co/nZZcMJcoBn— The Paris Review (@parisreview) August 22, 2013
I was halfway through Crace’s 11th and most recent novel, Harvest—and in need, I admit, of a little egging-on to persevere. So I concluded this (totally incomprehensible) tweet could be only one thing: an omen.
I was not alone in looking for signs. For over a month now, London bookies have been betting on who will win this year’s Man Booker Prize. Many have wagered on Harvest as a front-runner, and today it made it onto the shortlist. For Crace, this moment is especially ripe for such divining. In 1997, his fourth novel Quarantine was short-listed, but ultimately lost the contest. More than a dozen years and half a dozen books later, Crace (who is 67) professes this novel will be his last. If that’s true, Harvest is his final chance to win.
Crace’s “trick of fiction” (logs! donkeys!) is bizarre in a way that Twitter, home of the quirky non-sequitur, often embraces. It is the kind of thing I might have retweeted. But the truth is that I was tired of not understanding Jim Crace. Mired in Harvest, I needed this tweet to do more than titillate—I needed it to elucidate.
“Craceland” is notoriously—probably intentionally—hard to navigate. With the exception of only two books, Crace’s novels take place in a nameless, timeless, and sometimes charmless geography. The scenery of Harvest is agrarian and remote, a tiny village catalogued in exhaustive detail but surrounded by a vast unknown full of mysterious menaces. It is probably somewhere in or near England. When the book takes place is even harder to tell. The Man Booker website confidently says it’s the 18th century; one reviewer guesses the 16th century, while another suggests a mauve garment dates it to the second half of the 1800s.
Harvest’s tour guide is protagonist Walter Thirsk, an unlikely migrant to this secluded haven, where everyone else has been around for as long as memory holds—and has blonde hair and big bones to prove their stock. Walter takes the reader through his master’s manor house and his neighbors’ huts, to the acres where barley is sown and the marsh where dead bodies are discarded. And he narrates in measured tones as the insulated village is threatened by outsiders and begins to go up—quite literally—in flames.
So one thing I do understand about Crace is the trickiness of his fiction. Readers must plunge into a world that is at once obsessively specific (it’s hard to pay attention to each stalk of barley Crace describes) and troublingly vague (it’s hard not to wonder about the whole wide world Crace decides to leave out).