“They Wanted This Vacancy Filled”: Crace, Tóibín, and the Booker

Harvest, by Jim CraceThis year’s Booker longlist has been greeted with enthusiasm principally because it seems to offer an escape route from the conservatism of the last few years: Mantel, Jacobson, Barnes, Mantel is a list of consecutive winners which skews towards the establishment. However deserving Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and however passed-over Jacobson and Barnes have been in the past, four years of middle-aged Brits winning the prize might not be a trend worth continuing into 2013.

Despite Robert McFarlane’s on-the-record praise for one of 2012’s most exciting novels, M John Harrison’s Empty Space, the longlist remains in style much as it has before (Richard House’s The Kills confirms crime fiction in its position is the ‘respectable genre’). But youth and internationalism characterises the selections, and this seems enough given what we have come to expect of the types of book the Booker chooses to recognise and reward.

The Testament of Mary, by Colm ToibinIf the establishment has its champions on this longlist, the mantle (a-ha-ha) must rest rather awkwardly on them. Both Jim Crace and Colm Tóibín have been previously shortlisted for the Prize (Tóibín, of course, won with The Master, his magisterial evocation of the life of Henry James); both are regular commentators in the national and international press; both are middle-aged and both are – dear reader, ineluctably – male. On the other hand, neither quite sits as neatly at the top of that tree as a Jacobson or a Barnes: Crace is based in Birmingham, not London, and though my suggestion that he had made a good living taking the mickey out of contemporary and classic fiction alike is obvious nonsense, he continues to sit to one side of contemporary literary culture. Tóibín, meanwhile, may well be one of the English language’s most important, dynamic and perceptive writers – and that makes him very difficult indeed to dumb down, reposition or, that dread word, ‘sell’. (His last novel, Brooklyn, was longlisted for the Booker but didn’t make the grade in the year Wolf Hall won.)

For those rooting for more of their same from their Booker winner, both writers offer a lot of encouragement. Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is slim, almost The Sense of an Ending-ish, and yet preponderantly well-turned. It is narrated by a woman in first-century Ephesus whose son, a man in his early 30s who is wanted by the authorities, has just been crucified. Tóibín is less coy than my précis – there is in The Testament of Mary no attempt to debunk or debase the story of Jesus, and though Mary is shuffled off gently from the wedding at Cana so that we never read her direct observations of the water and the wine, she does witness Lazarus walking around as if he had never been dressed for burial.

The pooh-poohing of miracles is too facile a pastime for Tóibín; rather, his Mary is a witness to their aftermath (“the hordes had moved on, she said, followed by an even larger caravan of hucksters, salesmen, water-carriers, fire-eaters and purveyors of cheap food” [pg. 37]). Mary’s is the female voice raised against the male transformation of Christ’s work into Christian cult. Mary is attended each day in her Ephesian exile by two of Jesus’s disciplines – they are never named – and Mary instinctively understands “the elaborate nature of their desires” [pg. 3], desires which are thrust upon her son, who is told “that he was not a mortal as we are mortal, but […] that he he was the one we had been waiting for” [pg. 33]. These expectations, this worship, transforms her son: “There was nothing delicate about him now,” she observes as Jesus takes his place at the centre of the crowd, “he was all displayed manliness.” [pg. 49]

In part, this is a tender story of a mother letting go of her son – Jesus becomes “a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk” [pg. 54] – and Tóibín very much casts his Mary as a representative of a conflicted, everyday humanity distinct from the impossible perfection of the Gospels. Mary worships both at the temple of Artemis and of the one God; she begins her narrative improbably modern – “I disliked weddings […] the bride and groom more like a couple to be sacrificed” [pg. 27] – but ends it identifiably compromised (she chooses, despite the stories concocted after, to flee the site of the crucifixion rather than wait to bury her son, “to protect myself” [pg. 84]); and, ultimately, she stands for contingency over conviction (“Now I know how random it was and uncertain” (pg. 88). All of this makes for a quite astonishingly resonant novella, and a beautiful, poised piece of ventriloquism. It also speaks to the religious questions of our own age, in which women are again subjected, “within this group of men [… to] a set of hierarchies” [pg. 66], and their truths treated as inconvenient (“It will be as though what I saw did not happen” [pg. 99). The Testament of Mary is as exquisite, as slight, as a scalpel.

Crace’s Harvest is, in comparison, a doorstop – and yet is itself significantly shy of three hundred pages. Set in an indeterminately early modern decade, probably around the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, Harvest takes place entirely within the confines of a tiny hamlet, overseen by a manor house but more properly subject to the tender mercies of its land. Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, first came to the village some years earlier as the manservant of the new master of the manor, a man now in turn to be supplanted by the rightful heir – his dead wife’s wily cousin. At first, however, we like the villagers have no notion of the outside world, and the novel begins with two plumes of smoke – the first a fire at the manor house, the second a sign that interlopers have arrived at the edge of the village’s bounds.

It is remarkable how deftly Crace then spools outwards his plot from these two innocuous spots of grey on an otherwise vivid skyline. He writes about the natural world with spare, evocative economy: “There is a silent ripeness to the air, so mellow and sappy that we want to breathe it shallowly, to sip it richly like a cordial.” [pg. 60] Yet this is no Arcadia, or Romantic idyll: “The countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you.” [pg. 63] The village is isolated, two days’ ride from the nearest market town by even the fastest horse, and this has led to inter-breeding – Walter stands out in his colouration and facial features, and observes that “we are too small, and getting smaller” (pg. 4) – but has also played host to a real, if exclusive, community and an umbilical connection with the jealous soil. Indeed, the villagers have yet to bother building even a church, so busy are they with survival, but also, like Mary, with the simple common-sense knowledge that God is not the active agent which sustains them.

Into this centuries-old lifestyle steps first the man the villagers come to name ‘Mr Quill’, a map-maker whose work “has reduced us to a web of lines” [pg. 39], and then the master’s cousin himself. In the stocks, meanwhile, are the itinerant countryfolk responsible for that second plume of smoke – themselves likely displaced by enclosing maps such as Mr Quill’s. Four or five outside individuals are enough thoroughly to destabilise the village’s ancient but precarious balance: by the close of the novel it has changed irrevocably as a consequence of the latest innovation being applied to unprofitable villages such as Walter’s: sheep. “I’ll only have to touch them with this candle flame,” Walter observes of his master’s brittle documents of ownership, “and they will leap with fire.” [pg. 269]

“These are sad and hasty times,” the master sighs at one point [pg. 189], and Harvest certainly twinges a little for what has been lost: as the sheep-farmer’s retinue marches across the nameless fields, Walter sees “Privilege in its high hat. Then comes Suffering […] Malice follows […] afterwards, invisibly, Despair is riding its lame horse.” [pg. 202] On the other hand, Mr Quill is one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters, an artistic dupe for the cousin’s more brutal schemes, perhaps, but still a bringer of beauty and of culture: “His endeavours are tidier and more wildly colourful – they’re certainly more blue – than anything that nature can provide.” [pg. 133] Harvest offers a wise and inconclusive picture of what living more closely in harmony with the land means, and, conversely but simultaneously, what a more developed society can offer – Walter’s village, unchecked by the mores of the town, shaves women’s heads and charges them with witchcraft if they speak out of turn. There is little need to point out how this parable, too, is of urgent contemporary relevance.

In some years, both Crace and Tóibín would make the shortlist: The Testament of Mary, I think, pulls off the preternaturally difficult trick of being simultaneously the tauter and more supple work, but it is only a nose ahead. Given the inclinations of the longlist, however, it would seem odd if both men make it through. Crace has suggested Harvest is his last novel – in a press release, the Man Booker hopes its longlisting might change his mind – and so his might be the book to watch. Whatever. Both are superb, inspiring, important pieces of fiction, and though perhaps the Booker could do with some visibly fresh thinking, we could all do with more novels like these.