Book Review: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison – a compelling historical novel set in rural England

I’ve heard so much to recommend this novel and the setting of 1930s Suffolk also was appealing. It’s the story of Edith Mather who is fourteen during the summer of 1934 and everything’s gearing up towards harvest time. Her parents are tenant farmers with the help of John, who survived the battlefields of WWI, and Doble, their old farm hand. Edith’s brother Frank helps too and at seventeen is courting a local girl, his future mapped out for him. Older sister Mary is already married and has a baby, so Edith’s future seems set to follow in a similar direction. Alf Rose on a neighbouring farm already has his eye on Edie.

Then Connie FitzAllen arrives on the scene, visiting farms to research the old rural ways, with plans to write a book – her articles appearing in journals as Sketches from English Rural Life. Her fear is that farming traditions might be lost as mechanisation becomes widespread, farmers’ wives buy bread from the bakery instead of making their own and the conveniences of canned goods change the way people prepare meals. Connie takes a shine to Edith, who shows her round the village, and helps the visitor any way she can. To be fair, Connie lends a hand with the harvest, but what is her secret agenda?

Sketches from English Rural Life –

There is surely no better repast than country dishes, innocent of the fashions of the modern age. They may not be refined, but here there is good, wholesome food such as may be found on every English farm where butter is churned by hand, cheese is made, and bread is daily baked.

The story is told through Edith’s eyes and she’s an engaging narrator. She’s intelligent – her old teacher would have liked to see her study further, giving her exercise books to encourage her to write. But Edith’s needed on the farm. There’s all that laundry every Monday, and the chickens to care for as well as all the work to help bring in the harvest. It seems everyone has Edith’s time organised for her, including the incomer, Connie. No wonder she’s getting into a bit of a state.

But then all the characters are interestingly complex. Edith’s father seems to be under pressure – making the farm pay isn’t easy. There’s the depression after all, and he’s one of those typical men of his time who bottles up his feelings, resulting in sudden rages. Edith’s mother suffered as a girl as her mother was considered a bit of a witch. Connie is also complex, with her intense fondness for both Edith and her mother, her ability to charm even the stolid menfolk with her talk of politics and new ideas, though not at the expense of rural traditions, of course.

And then there’s the countryside. Harrison describes it in lush detail that makes you feel you are there, not just the flora and fauna as she sees it, but how it changes with the seasons, or even as day turns to night. She has a very distinctive voice and it doesn’t surprise me that her website describes her both a “novelist and nature writer”.

Our barley was well along now, flaxen from a distance and with the beards tipping over almost as we watched. The wheat, too, was ripening: the stalks were still-blue-green, but the tops of the ears were fading to a greenish-yellow, a tint that would become richer and spread down the ears as they fattened to finally gild the stalks and leaves. Then the sound of the cornfields would alter: dry, they would susurrate, whispering to Father and John that it was nearly time. The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks.

But in this idyllic setting there are darker dramas afoot, a hint that one war has past leaving its scars on people, while we are aware of another just around the corner. The characters meanwhile have their own more immediate issues creating so much strain that things seem set to boil over. This causes enough tension to sweep the reader along towards an ending you might not quite be prepared for. It’s a great historical read – a combination of characters you can feel for, great writing and a brilliant recreation of time and place. I can see why All Among the Barley has been so well reviewed. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about so it’s another five star read from me.

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