All Among the Barley
“Last night I lay awake again, remembering the day the Hunt ran me down in Hulver Wood when I was just a girl.” The tang of foreboding in this novel’s opening line owes something to its echo of “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Melissa Harrison surely intended the reader should be put in mind of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic Rebecca.
The “I” who lay awake is Edith, known as Edie, and she’s remembering, across the distance of 60 years, the summer of 1934. Edie’s Manderley is Wych Farm, her childhood home in rural Suffolk. The Great War is 16 years past but the farm and district are still in its long shadow. Farmhands, and men in general, are in short supply; fields and whole farms lie fallow. At 14 and just out of school, Edie is keenly aware of the malaise but it’s all she’s ever known. Her world extends only as far as the nearest market town.
That is, until Constance FitzAllen arrives from London. Wearing trousers and riding a bicycle, she installs herself in the local village for the summer to make a study of “country ways”. (“Such a shame the old traditions are passing away.”) Connie soon overcomes the locals’ wariness to become a fixture in farmhouse kitchens and the wheelwright’s shop, probing for old recipes and dialect words to include in the book she’s writing. She claims Edie as a particular friend and informant and, under Connie’s influence and the pull of puberty, the young girl’s world tilts towards the dark.
Harrison, a gifted nature-writer, imbues the farm’s summer fields with an ominous golden glow: the sun setting on a way of life. Connie is cast as the foreign body around whom Wych Farm’s woes accrue, yet, as written, she’s a stilted and unconvincing impetus. The disturbance within Edie and her family is enough to drive the novel’s growing sense of menace. The theme of nativism, embodied in Connie and meant to reverberate with the present, seems grafted on rather than integral to the plot.
From the start, Edie hints at a mysterious dislocation that befell her at the end of that summer. Wych Farm, she says, cranking her memory back, “is somewhere not far from here, I believe”. The twist that severs her from her old home, delivered in an epilogue, will surprise the reader who’s been privy to Edie’s problematic potential. FL
Bloomsbury Circus, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley". Subscribe here.