Ssince his first novel, The Solitude of Thomas’s CaveIn 2007, Georgina Harding’s fiction has varied widely, from a 17th-century whaling ship in the Arctic to communist Romania in the 1950s. For all their differences, her books are deeply connected, each in its own way. Way is a meditation on survival and the aftermath of trauma. Again and again they return to the implacability of memory, to the intolerable weight of bearing witness, to the struggle to build, or rebuild, a present-tense self on the ruins of the past. Like memory, they unwind in loops, the cloudy silences of the present briefly parting to expose glimpses of secrets that can never be spoken, that can hardly be thought of.
Harvest is the third in Harding’s series of novels about the Ashe family. Its very name summons sequels, something irrevocably lost. First, The weapons 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 anonymity of the city. Instead, a much older trauma begins to surface. The second, The land of the living, goes back 30 years to the devastating experiences of Jonathan’s father Charlie in the remote jungles of Assam during WWII, and his struggle, as a newly married farmer after the war, to free himself from his horror. In both novels, the place is vividly and viscerally evoked, the exotic strangeness of Asian landscapes in stark contrast to the windswept fields and wide skies of Norfolk. But while the latter is deeply familiar to both men, that familiarity brings neither security nor peace.
Harvest takes us back to the 70s, picking up on Jonathan’s story when he returns to Norfolk from Japan. Little has changed since he left. His brother Richard still lives with his mother Claire in their childhood home. Richard runs the family farm; Claire takes care of 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 her outside and shows him the roses. It’s a perfect summer day, maybe the only day of the year, Claire said, “when the garden was at its best. And Kumiko said then that she was lucky to be there. “
It is a mixed luck. Kumiko’s presence on the farm destabilizes the family’s unspoken quarters, cracking the careful surface of their lives. Claire has designed her garden with tall hedges, Kumiko warns, so tall that someone passing by “sees nothing of the house or the people in it.” High enough, too, to avoid the relentless little risks and brutalities of farm life. It is Kumiko, in her brightly colored 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 ward off shadows. “As the weather changes and the family waits helplessly in the rain to see what will become of the harvest, the dark water of the past begins to seep into the present and the secrets that have remained submerged for decades are finally exposed.
Harding writes with poor precision, his deceptively simple sentences laden with the weight of words that are not there. Like Jonathan, he has a photographer’s eye, always alert to the movement of light and shadow, framing his scenes so that they show much more than they count. At the end of the novel, Kumiko observes Jonathan that it is his job to watch. “Look,” she says. “You see, and you show us things about the world we live in that we don’t know we’ve seen.” Harding too. Its Norfolk landscape is beautiful and bleak, a land that can be cultivated, even with roses, but can never be fully controlled.
She brings the same clear look at her characters, examining them with a tender scrupulousness that unlocks their humanity without ever shrinking back from their cruelties and contradictions. Here too, he tells us, the belief in control is illusory: what will come, like the harvest, will come. It is a novel of waiting, the atmosphere charged and thick like the air before a storm, while the past slowly and inexorably makes itself known.
Sometimes, really, too slow. Harvest it lacks the terrible tension of its predecessors. At the same time, there are fewer of the little epiphanies, the straight-to-heart sparks of deep human understanding, that made the previous books such a treat. But if this is not the best of the three (that accolade must surely go to The land of the living), Harding’s book cycle stands as a masterful achievement, illuminating the darkest corners of the human heart with wisdom and compassion.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism