‘I nauseate walking; ’tis a country diversion. I loathe the country and everything that relates to it... Ah l’étourdie! I hate the town too.’ Millamant’s expostulation about the unresolved pull between rural and urban life has echoed down three centuries since The Way of the World. With Melissa Harrison’s second novel this quandary brings all the splendid, closely observed exposition that it did in her first, Clay.
Set around a small London park over the course of a year, Clay featured several parallel, disparate lives which met some while before infinity, along with a telling eye for flora and fauna which created a metropolitan pastoral. At Hawthorn Time, too, comes with a tantalising prologue which anticipates three strands one May. Howard and Kitty have moved to a village (with a warehouse on its edge), where she, a guilt-haunted aspirant artist, fits in better than he does (a former roadie and retired haulage operator, he is preoccupied with dealing in rebuilt vintage radios); teenager Jamie is eager to leave, but is stuck with a job in that warehouse and haunted by childhood memories of visiting a friend in a farm now up for sale — the one which draws back itinerant, notebook-filling Jack, who, through a fraught London, ‘navigated by a kind of telluric instinct’.
That adjective — of the earth, last cited by the OED in 1884 — is redolent of Harrison’s acute, effortless way of making her characters’ quiet desperation and thwarted hopes become of a piece with, and contrast to, May’s budding around them. As the narrative switches points of view, its interior monologues move between past and present, towards a brilliantly unresolved ending in which the reader becomes complicit. All is paralleled by the swallows’ progress, their ‘looping up to the eaves like stitches pulled tight’.
Such observation is typical of the novel (imitative starlings once made the blacksmith’s hammer persist ‘like a ghost in the repertoires of one or two generations of birds’ and in a church ‘the air seemed to refold itself in perfect stillness’). Equally adept is the depiction of grim pubs, ‘gunning’ a motorbike, and motor-spares arcana.
So much unforced life is here that Harrison is readily comparable with Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively; but she has a distinction all her own — and her growing audience must hope to live long enough to read everything she writes.