Writing about nature is no stroll in the park. I speak from experience, having set a novel on a farm in the 1970s and taught creative writing in various rural parts of England. Sometimes we send students outside to study a glorious scene of woodland, meadows and distant hills, then to write about it avoiding clichés. They come back looking pained: it’s hard to see flowers and sunsets with fresh eyes.
Looking through Melissa Harrison’s eyes provides a new way of seeing everything. Her descriptions of nature are so vivid that in some passages you hear and smell as well as see. Such original and intelligent writing is rare. Take this line: ‘Our churches are of knapped flint gleaned from the fields, the land itself raised up in prayer; and everywhere the corn reaches right up to the village edges, as I have been told the vineyards do in France.’ In one nimble sentence Harrison evokes the particularity of the Suffolk countryside and the narrator’s lively interest in other places, and offers up a striking image that shows the land as sacred and churches as earthly. It’s beautifully done.
All Among the Barley is set in the summer of 1933, the worst time for British agriculture, when many farms belonging to absentee landlords had been abandoned and ‘an army of men’ was missing from the fields. For one farming family, the Mathers, change and innovation cannot come soon enough.