Monday, 20 April 2015

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

Four-thirty on a May morning: the black fading to blue, dawn gathering somewhere below the treeline in the east.

review by Maryom

Early one Spring morning two cars collide on a country road near the small village of Lodeshill, the violence shattering the quiet; the ripped up grass bank, car wheels still spinning in the air, contents strewn across the road, three bodies lingering between life and death.

Over the previous month, four people have moved ever closer to this moment of impact;
Jack an itinerant farm worker, trying to escape the red-tape and bureaucracy of the modern world and live simply in the open air.
Middle-aged couple Howard and Kitty, recently moved to the country - dislocated from their normal life and finding their marriage gradually falling apart.
Local lad Jamie, lived in the village all his life, now looking for something beyond the mindless distribution centre work on offer and trying to find it in his souped-up, customised car.

At Hawthorn Time is a story of people trying to find themselves - not in any New Age vaguely spiritual sense, but in an everyday 'how and where do I fit in' way. We all have an idea, or ideal, of how the English countryside should be - sleepy villages where nothing has changed in hundreds of years, meadows with placidly grazing cows, ancient woodlands, life centred on the turning of the seasons. The reality of heavy farm machinery, migrant workers, the whole modern agricultural business or even cow-pat strewn roads doesn't quite fit that image we have. Into this gap between expectations and reality falls this story. Lodeshill is a place that's seen so much change in the last hundred years - machinery has taken over jobs once done by farm labourers, leaving villagers now seeking employment in the anonymous industrial units of the nearby town; farms are being sold off and housing built there; newcomers like Howard and Kitty have moved from the city in search of a rural idyll.

Jack is the most obvious misfit; an old-fashioned square peg that doesn't fit today's bureaucratic round hole. His way of life - wandering the ancient highways and byways of the countryside, in touch with his natural surroundings, living mainly off the land with little human contact - is opposed to modern ideas of land ownership, private property and trespassing. A quiet, dignified, harmless man, to outsiders he's seen as a threat - a vagrant, law-breaker and potential thief.

 Jamie has grown up in Lodeshill, firmly rooted in its paths and fields, more so than he realises. A generation or so ago he'd have become a farm worker, settled down into the rhythm of land and seasons and been content - now he's torn between the place he knows and the promise of the world beyond the village's boundaries.

Howard and Kitty are a couple in crisis, even if they're only vaguely aware of it as yet. Kitty was the driving force behind their move, but reality hasn't lived up to her country living dream and in a new home they seem to have forgotten how to speak to each other about anything beyond the most trivial everyday things. While Howard spends his days trapped in nostalgia for the past - his old haunts in London, the days before the children left home or tinkering with old radios - Kitty is out and about with her new hobby, photography. She's aware enough to know that what she captures is merely the picture postcard prettiness of the country, that somehow its real essence is eluding her - but she doesn't know how and why.
In their different ways they are all trying to find a place to belong, somewhere to which they can feel a connection, and as their stories unfold, heading for that fatal coming-together in four weeks time, so does Spring, bringing life and colour back to the countryside. I particularly loved the descriptions of flowers and blossom bursting back to life, of the country paths that Jack follows, the wildlife hiding just out of sight of the casual observer, but Harrison's close observations of both nature and people are a delight.

At Hawthorn Time is a lovely, compelling read. While it doesn't share the brutality of Cynan Jones' The Dig, it has the same quality of depicting rural life intimately and seeing it clearly, without blinkers; of showing that it's not glossy and chocolate box pretty but a place of dirt, and that without it being a place of work it will become empty and sterile.
There's also a little touch of the thriller about it. As the story brings us closer to discovering who was involved in the accident and why, it will have you turning the pages faster or wanting to sneakily check the ending - I'm not sure I'd advise it as, like the motorist whizzing along a country lane, you'll miss so much in the details.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury Publishing

Genre - adult literary fiction

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