REVIEW: All Among the Barley, Melissa Harrison

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The autumn of 1933 is the most beautiful Edie Mather can remember, although the Great War still casts its shadow over the fields and villages around her beloved home, Wych Farm. Constance FitzAllen arrives from London to document fading rural traditions and beliefs. For Edie, who must soon face the unsettling pressures of adulthood, the glamorous and worldly outsider appears to be a godsend. But there is more to the older woman than meets the eye. As harvest time approaches and pressures mount on the entire community, Edie must find a way to trust her instincts and save herself from disaster. A masterful evocation of the rhythms of the natural world and pastoral life, All Among the Barley is a powerful novel about the lessons of history and the dangers of nostalgia.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is a searing look at the rise of fascism and bigotry in the mid-war period; sharply and artfully written, it brings to mind a working-class version of Kazuo Ishiguro's astounding Remains of the Day, in how it examines the innocuous creeping-in of far-right ideas and how a broken, ravaged country created a perfect environment for them to begin to thrive.
I think, as a country, we Brits like to think that we always labeled Nazism as an evil force right from the start. We do that a lot, you know, pretending that we're the good guys. But in this novel, Melissa Harrison instead confronts the reality of the situation: that, in the years leading up to World War 2, a majority of the UK population thought that Hitler might be on to something.
It is a horrifying thought, one made all the more awful when you switch on the news or social media and realise that people are making the same mistakes that their great-grandparents did. Sure, it may be in another guise, parcelled up in a different sort of package and targeting a different group of people, but bigotry is bigotry no matter which way you slice it.
I think that is what makes Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley all the more compelling: the cyclical nature of history; the lessons that need to be learnt when we look back through the generations; the looming dread of long-informed foresight. It is a heady thing, one that works only to exemplify the wrought emotions in the novel; creating a connection through the generations between two times, and two people, that might at first seem inconceivably disparate.
After-all, by choosing not to romanticise the mid-war period (as so many other authors are wont to do), darkness inevitably rolls over the golden ears of corn; bringing those rose-tinted images tumbling back down to their grim reality. Its darker themes at the forefront, Melissa Harrison truly excels; bringing unmistakable humanity and life back to a time thought long since passed.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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