It’s time for something a little more contemporary here at The Hills: today’s book review is on All Among The Barley by Melissa Harrison, a book I was desperate to get my hands on as soon as it was published at the end of August this year.
I say contemporary, but in terms of when the book is set, we’re going back to the 1930s; 1934, specifically, to a Suffolk farm and a young female narrator, Edith (or Edie/Ed). And indeed, time and everything it encompasses - rhythms, routines, change - is a significant factor in this story. Edith is facing changes personally - on the cusp between girlhood and womanhood, she’s watched her sister, Mary, move from young lady to wife and mother with a mixture of fascination and horror. The community in which she lives was decimated by WW1, and the changes wreaked by that seismic event are still felt daily on the farm and in the village, where the church pews bear the names of the dead in gold lettering.
Much of the happenings of the novel are measured against the routines of agricultural life, and the harvest, tilling and sowing takes on an additional resonance as we learn more about this family and their lives. The choice of 1933 is poignant, set as it is at the fulcrum between traditional rural life and full mechanisation, and feels incredibly timely as Britain prepares to leave Europe and we face another enormous change to rural life.
And then there’s the arrival of Constance FitzAllen to the farm - a loud, sometimes brash, opinionated woman determined to discover more about the ‘old ways’ of farming life, and record them for posterity. Edith is fascinated by her energy and strange ways, not least the way she speaks to her formidable grandfather as an equal and declares herself an atheist at the dinner table…!
Constance definitely disrupts the steady routines of life for the family, and particularly for Edith who - with Mary gone and her mother, shall we say, distracted - is ripe for some glamour. But Constance isn’t simply the London career girl of Edith’s naive imagining, and slowly the sense of menace present from the outset builds to something more tangible. Suddenly Constance’s early professions of love for the countryside - “I just feel we’re in danger of losing touch with the soil, and with all the lovely old traditions…” - becomes more nationalistic in tone - “We need a strong government to set us free from our dependence on the international finance system - one that will act in the best interests of the British people, that will favour British manufacturing and farming…” - and then becomes altogether more sinister and chilling.
If you love descriptions of rural and especially agricultural life, then you’ll certainly enjoy All Among The Barley. Be warned, though - this moves from innocent pastoral to political work pretty quickly, and you won’t be able to stop yourself drawing parallels between Harrison’s fictional world and pre-Brexit contemporary Britain.