I am sure I have mentioned more than once or twice that I love books set in the British countryside. I mean I love books set all over the world; from India to Australia, Japan to Brazil and everywhere in between, as part of the joy of reading is that you can experience the entire world through the pages of a book. Yet for me there is also something really interesting about reading a world you already know (for I was brought up in many different parts of the British countryside) as seen through other peoples eyes be it the authors or the characters they populate their books with. It was this that made me so eager to read At Hawthorn Time when I first heard about it, from the cover alone it screams this is a book about nature and the countryside. Sold.
The end is the beginning is the end in the case of Melissa Harrison’s second novel At Hawthorn Time, as we witness the results of a car crash when the novel opens. What we are left wondering, and of course to find out, is who was in each of the cars and who the bystander is observing it all on the outskirts of the small village of Lodeshill somewhere in the wilds of the British Midlands. You might now be thinking ‘hang on is this some high octane mystery about a collision… you said it was about the countryside’ well I wasn’t fibbing, that is what we get as we read on.
I have mentioned before my issues with books that start with a bang and then settle down before sadly proceeding to peter out and become somewhat exhausted by themselves and the pressure the author put on them to start with. At Hawthorn Time is not one of these novels. What unfolds as we read on is a book that grips you not with bangs and whistles, instead grabbing you with its beautiful writing, its characters and its theme of human nature vs. the natural world itself, the latter which is struggling in part because we simply take for granted what we see before our eyes and almost become immune to, tending to forget and starting to forfeit. Whilst this is not the case with all but one of the four main characters, it is these characters integrations with nature that reminds us of what we are missing out on by not being as focused or grateful for the little things as we should be.
Howard and Kitty are recent incomers to Lodeshill, moving into the village for the start of their retiring years mainly because Kitty wants to head back out into the countryside despite the fact, much to Howards annoyance, that she isn’t originally from there. We soon realise that one of the couple hopes this will reignite their relationship and the other is there to reignite their creativity and to move further away from some of the secrets they hold. Jamie is a young man who has lived his whole life in Lodeshill, as have many generations of his family, and yet who yearns to get away from it as much as he feels completely tied to it. He knows the folk lore of the area, can tell you all the different types of trees and yet spends his days in a windowless distribution centre on the edge of the village day dreaming of upgrading the car he is remodelling and races down the quiet straight roads at night. Finally we have Jack, a nomad and a wanderer; who has dropped out of society for a simpler and more natural way of life, working when he needs to and sleeping the fields and forests as he goes.
Through all four of these characters Harrison looks at the different ways in which human nature and nature itself work together and against each other. For Howard and Kitty instead of lessening the divide between them it almost magnifies it. One it seems is much more cut out for the city than the countryside. While it reignites the creative spark in ones heart, it bores the other to death. One wants to go out to the forest and take all the nature in, the other wants to just go to the pub. This is a path well trodden in fiction, film and on the radio and I must say that Harrison both keeps you with them by writing their story in a way that is both filled with humour yet is also slowly more and more tragic as we read on, had this not been the case I might have been occasionally waiting for Jamie or Jack to stroll onto the page.
The swallows that nested in the eaves of Manor Lodge bore the same genes as the ones who had built the first mud cups there nearly 150 years before; the swallows at the rectory went back even further. Every April they arrived in the village from Africa, lining up like musical notes on the telephone wires and swooping for beakfuls of mud on the banks of the dew pond on Culverkeys Farm to repair their nests. When they first moved in Howard complained about them shitting on the Audi, but Kitty said they brought happiness to a home. Now they just parked the cars a little further from the side wall.
It is with Jaime and Jack that I found the themes more powerful and where the heart of At Hawthorn Time and strength of Harrison’s writing really lies. Both their sections had me completely lost within them. Jack is a man who is so much in love with nature he has gone back to the natural world without becoming feral. Yet considering his wants to be so at peace with the world society (on the whole) seems to either see this exclusion of all the trappings of modern life as something other, something weird or even something dangerous and sinister. You could understand why he would rather spend his time out with the trees and wildlife than with people who don’t understand him, judge him. or fear him. I found this fascinating. I also loved Jack and wanted to adopt him – even if he just wanted to live in my shed.
I found Jamie’s situation equally as intriguing and complex. Here is a young lad who loves everything about the place he grew up, the childhood he had and the people he spent it with. However as he grows older and discovers there is a world outside that is both petrifying and exciting, also tempting. How he deals with those two extremes and elements, the pressure from family and work whilst also wanting to be his own person and not be swayed rang so true to me. Do you dare to go out in the world and possibly change for good or for bad, or do you stay where you are and appreciate your lot or become embittered by it. This and the conflict of the old and the new is something that seems to be on the minds of some of the other characters in the book as we go forward and is what brings to the fore the whole theme of forgetting and forfeiting the wonders of the natural world all around us.
‘I mean , if you collected together all the mischievous fairies, black dogs and, I don’t know, haunted houses from all over the country, you’d soon see they’re all of a type – just ways of explaining what was unexplainable back then. Fortunately,’ he continued, turning to Chris with a grin, ‘we have science now.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, Dad. It must have been amazing growing up in those times: there’d be a story attached to every cave, every rock, every tree. It wouldn’t be, you know, there are some trees -’ Chris waved an arm at the general view – ‘and we know everything there is to know about them, though hardly anyone actually bothers to learn their names, It would be a case of, this tree, this oak tree, has a wicked witch in it, this willow tree is magic -’
I found At Hawthorn Time a really interesting, engaging and beautifully written novel. Harrison’s writing of the natural world is just gorgeous, making the divide between nature writing and fictional storytelling become wonderfully blurred. A scene can become a standout moment with just the addition of a bumble bee going about its daily life while all the human drama is unfolding in front of it without it even noticing. I have never seen this done in quite such a subtle and effective way before. I also think Jack is going to stay with me as one of my favourite characters of the year. I look forward to whatever Harrison chooses to write next and will certainly be heading to her debut Clay in the not too distant future.
Who else has read At Hawthorn Time and what did you make of it? Have you read Clay as I would love thoughts on that too. Also do let me know of any books you love which feature the English countryside heavily. You can see my thoughts on some great books featuring the British landscape I wrote for Fiction Uncovered here. Maybe it is time I did a top ten novels about the British countryside (if I haven’t already) or books featuring nature, what do you think?