There are two kinds of great film actors: the ones who can play any part (Meryl Streep) and those who essentially play the same character over and over again, but do it surpassingly well (Clark Gable). This formula can also be applied to audiobook narrators. Some transform their voices so as to be almost unrecognizable from book to book (David Aaron Baker -- I still can't believe the guy who read Charles Portis' "Norwood" also read M.T. Anderson's great dystopian YA novel, "Feed"), and others, while less versatile, are sometimes just the perfect fit for the book in hand.
John Keating's narration of Jim Crace's "Harvest" falls into the latter category. His eminently pleasant voice, with an Irish lilt that he turns up and down at will, is more or less the same whatever book he's reading. In the case of "Harvest," a deceivingly simple account of the implosion of a small rural community, it is exactly the right voice to convey a story with some of the qualities of a fairy tale. Small things here have big meanings, and Keating, who imparts the flavor of a bedtime story to the proceedings, adds to the novel's archetypal resonance.
The setting is an isolated pastoral village in a preindustrial world. Readers often assume (understandably) that Crace's fiction is set in England, but this is not quite the case; place names and other precisely identifying traits are omitted. This nameless village has no church, a manor house inhabited by a man without a distinct title and it is about to be harrowed by enclosure, the process by which lands once held and farmed in common were parceled up and assigned to individual owners. While the enclosure movement of the 16th and 17th centuries was an actual historical event in England, Crace's vagueness about where and when his novel's action occurs is deliberate. He's writing not about a particular village, but the universal village, and what he describes could and does happen everywhere.
Walter, the novel's narrator, relates how a couple of ordinary events -- the sighting of a party of newcomers at the edge of the village's land and the inadvertent burning down of the landlord's dovecot by bumpkin pranksters -- strike against the flinty reality of the coming order to ignite a conflagration. A false accusation and punishment, an accidental death, a ruthless new landowner and finally a witch hunt proceed to dismantle a community that had, just a few days before, seemed eternal. Walter, a clerk-turned-farmer who married into the village but is now widowed, has a half-in, half-out perspective on the cottagers' lives. Crace has often made clever use of first-person-plural narration, and here he indicates the slipperiness of Walter's status in going back and forth between "I" and "we."
Crace is also one of the few contemporary novelists who takes seriously the ideas that Tolstoy is always stopping to lecture us about his fiction: the belief that the world and history are determined not by the actions of individual men but by the shifting of power and other great forces. One of his previous novels, "The Gift of Stones," is narrated by a Stone-Age craftsman whose way of life is destroyed by the advent of Bronze-Age technology. "Being Dead" is literally about the process of decomposition; its central focus is two dead bodies.
"Harvest" is ravishingly rich in evocations of country life and also of the hardships of subsistence farming even in the relatively benign, fertile environment where the novel takes place. Crace's prose is so sensual you can't help but believe it describes an actual material place. But this village is like the forests of the Brothers Grimm, a setting meant to be both familiar and strange. If you think Crace is only talking about the shift from the medieval to the modern world, you'd be very, very wrong. That's why Keating, with his lulling bedside cadences, is this novel's ideal narrator. Like any good fairy tale, this one is designed to slip into your subconscious and to get under your skin. And to stay there.
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