Jim Crace won the world’s richest literary prize this year - the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – for this novel.
The novel is set in an unnamed English village sometime before the Industrial Revolution. The village is small and isolated but self-sufficient. One day strangers arrive: three are a family which has been dispossessed by enclosure and seeks to make a new home, but they are soon charged with arson though there is no proof they are guilty. The other newcomer is Jordan Edmund, the new lord of the manor, who has decided that subsistence agriculture will be replaced by the raising of sheep and the production of wool; with him, he brings some men to act as enforcers. The scapegoating of the trio by the villagers has unforeseen consequences; they inadvertently set in motion a series of events which help Master Jordan to initiate his plan for the remote, agrarian community. Within seven days, the “commonwealth of habit, custom, and routine” is supplanted so everything can be “weighed and sized for selling.”
The book details the unraveling of a traditional way of life in the face of economic progress: “the village as we know it and our employments are to be surrendered to the yellow teeth of three thousand sheep” in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” so “a village of Enough . . . will be a settlement of More.” Master Jordan downplays the fact that the villagers “’will sadly need to make economies’” but it soon becomes clear that the villagers will be unsettled since there will not be sufficient work for them once the common fields are enclosed and dedicated to sheep pasturage.
Crace’s decision to leave the village unnamed (though the surnames of the villagers suggest it is in England) and the time period vague was deliberate. The fate of this one village mirrors events in many parts of the world. The physical and emotional displacement of people has happened repeatedly over the centuries and continues even in the present with globalization. The fable-like timelessness emphasizes that this is a parable for all peoples in all times.
The narrator is Walter Thirsk, a relative newcomer to the village. He has lived there for twelve years but is to some extent still viewed as an outsider. What is interesting is that he is not present for many of the major events so his narration is second-hand; he gets information from others or speculates as to what might have happened: “I already understand enough . . . to suppose how [events] might have advanced.” He is also very passive, always meaning to do something but not taking action or doing so too late; he is described as “a cautious man . . . a civil owl, too quick to hoot, too scared to show [his] talons to the world.” He seems to represent the people of the world who use distance from events as an excuse for inaction and who don’t act for fear of reprisal.
The novel offers a close-up of rural life. The routines and customs of village life are detailed; in the first paragraph, there is reference to “the custom and the law.” There is definitely an appeal to the senses in many of the descriptions of nature: “The bread-and-biscuit smell of rotting wood. The piss-and-honey tang of apple trees”; “two woven cloths, one lemon-yellow, one apple-green”; and “a patterned canopy of trees, line on line, the orchard’s melancholy solitude, the jewelry of leaves . . . the russet, apple-dotted grass, the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet.”
Though the passing of a way of life is mourned, the author does not idealize the villagers. They are very close-minded, almost xenophobic: “They are too rooted in their soil, too planched and thicketed, to be at ease with newcomers” and “And it makes sense in such a distant place as this, where there is little wealth and all our labors are spent on putting a single meal in front of us each day, to be protective of our modest world and fearful for our skinny lives.” So newcomers are soon blamed for a crime of which they are, almost certainly, innocent. Mob mentality surfaces; the narrator says, “The village is aflame, but not with fire.” As mob mentality rules, the narrator realizes that he, because he is not native-born, is not safe: “these are also dangerous times for me.” Their world is not an ideal one, but it seems to be better than the one offered by Master Jordan, a “pattern of living . . . which would assure a profit for those - he means himself - who have ‘the foresight.’”
This is not a hopeful book. It is full of warnings: “I could sense the thunder and the lightning closing in on us. A mighty storm of reckoning was on its way.” The way in which the villagers treat the outsiders who were displaced suggests how they themselves will be treated when they have to venture out into the larger world. At the end, the narrator offers a summary of what has happened: “Today, I’m seeing Privilege, in its high hat. Then comes Suffering: the Guilty and the Innocent, including beasts. Then Malice follows, wielding its great stick. And, afterward, invisibly, Despair is riding its lame horse.”
This book is a morality tale, Biblical in tone, warning of the consequences of letting private interests take control of resources once the responsibility of everyone and shared by all. It is a book worth reading and perhaps even re-reading.