Towards the end of Harvest, Georgina Harding’s luminescent new novel, a young boy admonishes his mother for not bringing him home from school in time to say goodbye to a dying and much-loved family friend. “You should have told me,” he tells her angrily. “I wanted to see him. You never let me see things.” We know that seeing something terrible can have lasting consequences — not least because it’s a topic that has preoccupied Harding’s own work — but what slowly worms its way to the surface here is the idea that not seeing something can carry a trauma all its own.
Harvest is the third in what Harding’s publishers describe as “a cycle of novels on the themes of witness and memory and the silences handed down through Britain of the postwar years”. Its predecessors — The Gun Room (2016) and Land of the Living (2018) — excavated the experiences of men who had seen things they struggled to forget. Less conspicuously, they also ask questions about what it means to be a man, especially regarding what is expected of them and what is denied them when they are “recovering from the war”.
In The Gun Room, Jonathan, a young British photographer, takes a picture of a distraught American soldier in a burning Vietnamese village. It’s a career-defining shot, but the memory of what he witnessed that day haunts him thereafter, taking its place alongside that of something he wasn’t supposed to have seen, way back in his childhood, on the day his father died. Land of the Living then propels us back in time, to when Charlie, Jonathan’s father, first returns to England after the second world war, plagued by recollections of life and death in the Burmese jungle.
After Vietnam, Jonathan travelled to Tokyo, where he fell in love with a Japanese girl named Kumiko. It’s now the 1970s, and as Harvest opens he is back home in Norfolk with his widowed mother, Claire, and his elder brother, Richard, who runs the family farm. “Come and see me,” Jonathan writes to his lover, so she does, her arrival heralding the beginning of a thick, heavy summer, the air charged with the things each family member has left unsaid.
In further exploring Claire’s story (her experiences as a young wife took centre stage in Land of the Living), Harding asks questions about what it means to raise boys to be good men, something that has been especially hard for her as a single mother. Her sons’ adult selves are a different kind of harvest to that which they and the farmhands reap at the end of the season. As in the previous books, characters’ memories of episodes from their pasts are braided into the action detailed in the present. It’s a delicate latticework of incident and interconnection that enriches both our understanding of what’s happening here, and how Harvest fits into the cycle as a whole.
This sense of smooth continuance also extends to the prose itself, which feels organic and vital, expanding and contracting as if breath moves through it. Harding doesn’t use speech marks, and the perspective shifts are subtle, sometimes as swift as from one sentence to the next. There’s nothing showy here, though, which means it can take a while to comprehend the full extent of her remarkable talent.
Certain scenes ripple with the echoes of those that have come before. The visit paid to the family after Charlie’s death by Jack Hussey, a man who knew him in Asia during the war, recalls Charlie’s own trip in Land of the Living to see the widow of one of his fellow combatants. When Claire shows Kumiko her treasured roses, we recall the Japanese girl’s grandfather proudly showing Jonathan his own garden in The Gun Room.
Yet it is also possible to read Harvest as a standalone work, especially because Harding opens the overarching story by means of a previously unexplored viewpoint — that of the steadfast, stay-at-home Richard, who has been left to shoulder different burdens. As Hussey implies, there is the finest of lines between seeing action and seeing the consequences of war and, more often than not, “none of it is quite what one thinks”. Harvest is a work of delicate, devastating beauty, proof that Harding is a writer of rare insight who deserves to be read more widely.
Harvest, by Georgina Harding, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 240 pages
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