Oct/Nov 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

At Hawthorn Time

Review by Ann Skea

At Hawthorn Time.
Melissa Harrison.
Bloomsbury. 2015. 280 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 5904 9.

"Here is where it all ends." These are the first words of the Prologue, which goes on to describe a horrifying car crash. So a shadow is cast over the rest of the book, a volume which, in many ways is an elegy and a lament. It is a lament for endings, nostalgia for times past, and regret for the things people do to each other and to the world around them.

As if to mitigate all this, and in marked contrast to the everyday, seemingly ordinary sadnesses in the lives of her characters, Melissa Harrison prefaces each chapter with notes of springtime blossoming and renewal. Old country names are used—"Borage, self-heal, first wild clematis flowers (old-man's beard, travellers joy)"— and the writer of the notes is immersed in the land and sees things most people rarely notice: "Avens, dog's mercury, harebells, vetch. Otter spoor by the river." I did not realize until the end of the book that these notes and the Prologue and Epilogue are provided by Jack, an itinerant man who wants only to keep travelling, taking occasional farm work and living as best he can off the land. He seeks out the old by-ways and remembers old customs. He knows the land, knows its creatures, knows things about its past, and sees the changes that have happened and are still happening. He remembers "the graceful elms. So did the rooks: you could hear the loss in their chatter still," but seeing "fugitive" new growth all around him, he is hopeful that one day they might return. "It was something Jack tried to believe."

But Jack's way-of-life is threatened by land-owners who suspect him of poaching and want to move him on, by police who will arrest him for vagrancy, and by house-holders who treat any unkempt stranger with suspicion.

Two of these house-holders are Howard and Kitty. New to the village after a life spent in London, they are strangers to country ways. Kitty has always dreamed of living in the country so that she can immerse herself in her art. But she finds this more difficult than she expects, until a chance meeting with Jack changes the way she looks at things and she sees beyond the conventional prettiness and finds freshness and inspiration in the ordinary things about her. The "brutal footing of a pylon, the way it was anchored in cow shit and dandelions." Howard immerses himself in his antique-radio-collecting hobby but yearns for London and finds it hard to fit in. Their marriage was already troubled, but by letting Kitty follow her dream, Howard hoped to repair it. For the visit of their grown-up children, they maintain a fragile pretence of togetherness, but this cannot last.

Jamie, a local teenager, lives with his father and his mildly mentally disturbed mother. He works at a big, soul-less local goods depot and also has a Saturday job in a bakery in order to pay for the rebuilding and renovation of an old Corsa car, which is his obsession. His friend, Alex, with whom he has shared much of his life, has suddenly and unexpectedly moved from the next-door farm with his mother and sister, and from early in this book we know that Alex's father has subsequently killed himself.

For Jamie's grandfather, change is unnerving. His past and present are beginning to merge into each other as his memory becomes unreliable. Once a farmhand, then a prisoner-of-war, then a survivor returning to a very different post-war world to work in a factory, he is always longing to go back to the land. His sudden disappearance precipitates the dramatic ending of this book.

Through other villagers and farmers, we learn something of country life: the changes in farming practices and crops, the influx of farm-laborers from Easter European countries, the modified Rogation Day "Beating the Bounds" ritual (which Kitty and Howard attend to try to fit into the village community), the gossip and the rumor.

Melissa Harrison writes compassionately and movingly about her people and about the universal need to belong to the land, the community, and to each other. Nature is a strong presence in this book: birds, flowers, smells, colors, and traditions, ever changing and ever renewing. Small details of springtime abundance pervade the book, but Harrison is also realistic about the fragility of nature and of life. The tiny bruised hawthorn petals in the treads of the wrecked car, which are the final image of the book, beautifully convey her love and her concern.


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