Anyone anticipating bucolic bliss from Melissa Harrison’s second novel will be forewarned. Its prologue is narrated by the ghost of someone just killed in a road accident: ‘two cars, spent and ravished, violence gathered about them in the silent air. One wheel, upturned, still spins.’
How matters have come to this pass provides the trajectory of the plot, but the book’s deeper purpose is to explore the modern English countryside through the eyes of a handful of characters: the quarrelling middle-aged incomers Howard and Kitty, car-mad local boy Jamie, and Jack, a wandering labourer and poet who appears to be part John Clare and part Robert Macfarlane. Needless to say, the last is the most sympathetic and interesting character to follow as, trying to avoid the police, he moves back to the small village of Lodeshill. Living on and off the land and seeking low-paid work, such as asparagus-picking, Jack travels along old, forgotten paths and is ‘less like a modern man and more like the fugitive spirit of English rural rebellion’.
Harrison’s descriptive powers and close observation of the natural world, displayed in her first novel, Clay, have already elicited praise from Macfarlane himself, among others. Her perceptions encompass both the beauty and the indifference of nature to us and the way human beings are doing their best to destroy nature.