Harvest by Georgina Harding review – unearthing the secrets of the past | Fiction

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Since her debut novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, in 2007, Georgina Harding’s fiction has ranged widely, from a 17th-century whaling boat in the Arctic to communist Romania in the 1950s. For all their differences, her books are profoundly connected, each one in its own way a meditation on survival and the aftershocks of trauma. Again and again they return to the implacability of memory, the intolerable weight of bearing witness, the struggle to build – or rebuild – a present-tense self on the ruins of the past. Like memory, they unspool in loops, the clouded silences of the present parting briefly to expose glimpses of secrets that can never be spoken, that can barely even be thought.

Harvest is the third in Harding’s cycle of novels about the Ashe family. Their very name summons aftermath, something irrevocably lost. The first, The Gun Room, tells the story of Jonathan Ashe, a young photojournalist responsible for one of the defining images of the Vietnam war. He moves to Tokyo, seeking refuge in the city’s anonymity. Instead a much older trauma begins to surface. The second, The Land of the Living, steps back 30 years to Jonathan’s father Charlie’s shattering experiences in the remote jungles of Assam during the second world war, and his struggle, as a newly married farmer after the war, to unshackle himself from their horror. In both novels place is vividly, viscerally evoked, the exotic strangeness of the Asian landscapes contrasting sharply with the windswept fields and flat wide skies of Norfolk. But while the latter is profoundly familiar to both men, that familiarity does not bring safety or peace.

Harvest takes us back to the 70s, picking up Jonathan’s story as he returns to Norfolk from Japan. Little has changed since he left. His brother Richard still lives with their mother Claire in their childhood home. Richard runs the family farm; Claire tends her garden. No one talks about Charlie’s violent death 20 years earlier. When Jonathan’s Japanese girlfriend Kumiko joins him on an extended visit, Claire walks with her outside, showing her the roses. It is a perfect summer’s day, perhaps the one day in the year, Claire said, “when the garden was at its best. And Kumiko said then that she was lucky to be there.”

Georgina Harding.
Georgina Harding. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

It is a mixed kind of luck. Kumiko’s presence in the farmhouse destabilises the family’s unspoken accommodations, cracking the careful surface of their lives. Claire has designed her garden with high hedges, Kumiko notices, so high that someone passing by “would see nothing of the house or of the people in it”. High enough, too, to keep out the small relentless risks and brutalities of farm life. It is Kumiko, with her brightly coloured outfits and cautious English, who destroys this carefully cultivated barrier and forces the outside world in. “So fresh and free she looked in the yellow dress. Sunlight to blaze away the shadows.” As the weather turns and the family waits, powerless in the rain, to see what will become of the harvest, the dark water of the past begins to seep into the present and secrets that have lain submerged for decades are finally exposed.

Harding writes with spare precision, her deceptively simple sentences heavy with the weight of the words that are not there. Like Jonathan, she has a photographer’s eye, alert always to the movement of light and shade, framing her scenes so that they show far more than they tell. Late in the novel Kumiko observes to Jonathan that it is his job to watch. “You look,” she says. “You see, and you show us things about the world we live in that we don’t know we’ve seen.” So does Harding. Her Norfolk landscape is both beautiful and bleak, a land that can be cultivated, even with roses, but which can never fully be controlled.

She brings the same clear gaze to her characters, examining them with a tender scrupulousness that unlocks their humanity without ever flinching from their cruelties and contradictions. Here too, she tells us, the belief in control is illusory: what will come, like the harvest, will come. This is a novel of waiting, the atmosphere charged and thick like the air before a thunderstorm, as the past slowly and inexorably makes itself known.

Sometimes, in truth, too slowly. Harvest lacks some of the terrible tension of its predecessors. At the same time there are fewer of the small epiphanies, the straight-to-the-heart sparks of profound human understanding, that made the previous books such a delight. But if this is not the finest of the three (that accolade must surely go to The Land of the Living), together Harding’s cycle of books stand as a masterly achievement, illuminating with wisdom and compassion the darkest corners of the human heart.



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