BOOK CLUB: All Among the Barley
Last week I realised the swifts had gone. It isn't immediately noticeable until, suddenly, you feel a stillness in the air, and look up to realise they are no longer there. It's a moment of melancholy - not just because they're such joyful birds, a gang of screaming hooligans floating through the sky - but because their departure means we've come full circle, and autumn is drawing in. The days stay hot but the nights grow cool, and elderberries start to ripen on the trees. The swallows are still here - in fact, the week before last there was still a second brood of swallows in the hay store at the livery, a row of fully grown chicks squashed into their nest, keeping the horses company. One day I brought my camera in to take a photo - but it was too late. The nest was empty, the fledglings now lost in the blur of birds filling the sky, gathering together to leave Britain for distant lands.
At heart, I'm not a summer person. The heat is fun if you don't have anything to do, but trying to accomplish anything in the last few weeks of the heatwave has been arduous. The other day I watched an episode of Poirot set in the autumn countryside, and I couldn't help longing for golden afternoons, crisp leaf litter and big coats. The shift between seasons always feels strange, but this year it's been suitably complimented by the arrival of Melissa Harrison's latest novel All Among the Barley, a book I finished within 48 hours of picking it up.
'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' The opening line of L P Hartley's The Go-Between didn't spring to mind until after I'd finished All Among the Barley, but suddenly I realised why I had been so captivated by this book. The shimmering, stifling backdrop of the English summer, the oppressive conditions in which the characters are forced to grow up, and the hint of magic dancing through the pages - all echoes of Hartley, but written with new perspectives on the unsettled nature of interwar Britain and the limbo state of female adolescence. It follows an episode in the life of fourteen-year-old Edie Mathers on her family farm in Suffolk, as the local community copes with the interwar depression and the vibrant Constance FitzAllen arrives from London to document the 'old ways' of rural England.
Almost a century has passed since the time in which this novel is set - but never has a story seemed more relevant to the bewildering place Britain has become today. We hear the same anti-immigrant rhetoric today as we did ninety years ago in the pages of the Daily Mail - Jews 'swarming' into our country, incompatible with our own culture. It's almost comical how we watch ourselves make the same mistakes - we look at Hitler and wonder why his people 'allowed' the Holocaust to happen, and then share anti-Islamic petitions on Facebook. All Among the Barley is a reminder of the dangers of otherness and the idolisation of the past, as well as a poignant portrait of a young girl leaving her childhood behind in a community whose solid social structures have been uprooted in the aftermath of the war. Set against the beautiful backdrop of rural Suffolk, Melissa's linguistic crafting of the landscape is enchanting and incredibly well researched, from the intricacy of horse tack to the stacking of barley ricks.
We're currently in the process of moving house - still in the paperwork stages, sadly, but to move things along I've been going through all our things and trying to remove as much clutter as possible, while also keeping a lookout for statement pieces for the new house - things that will last, and things that mean something. I was delighted to find that, to accompany the release of her new book, Melissa has worked with the graphic artist Lewis Heriz to produce a series of screen prints inspired by the novel. I've chosen the one below as my favourite - a piece called 'Dawn' - which you can buy from Lewis' website here.
All Among the Barley is a glittering, provocative read for the last few weeks of summer, and will be published 23 August with Bloomsbury. You can find out more about Melissa's work here.