At Hawthorn Time is a narrative of belonging and identity, wrapped up in an elegiac homage to the natural world. It is the second novel of Melissa Harrison, a freelance writer and occasional photographer who lives in South London. She won the John Muir Trust’s ‘Wild Writing’ Award in 2010 and was a Writer In Residence at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, in January 2014. She contributes to The Times‘ weekly Nature Notebook column, reviews books for the Weekend FT and Slightly Foxed, and blogs about urban wildlife at www.talesofthecity.co.uk.
Helen Macdonald (author of last year’s Costa Book of the Year H is for Hawk) has described the novel as ‘a new kind of modern pastoral. Times are changing, both in modern rural life and in the personal lives of the main protagonists. As the year turns from April into May, four different characters bear witness to this change. Howard and Kitty are a middle-class couple, recently retired, whose marriage is stumbling towards a parting of the ways; Jamie, born and bred in the village of Lodeshill, is struggling to rise above his dysfunctional family and dead-end job; and lastly, there is Jack, a one-time activist and terminal vagrant, always one step ahead of the system, but truly a man at one with the landscape.
Harrison has an original, lyrical writing style. When it works, it is sublime. Her rendering of the interconnectedness between land and people reminded me strongly of Jim Crace’s Man Booker Prize short-listed work Harvest. Harrison’s writing is at its strongest when describing the journey of drifter, Jack, as he passes unseen through that liminal world between uncaring society and nurturing earth; “a brief silhouette to the cars beneath him, a glimpsed figure that left nothing behind but a single white petal blown from his coat that was caught briefly by a windscreen wiper…’ In another section, Jamie questions his involvement in the unravelling of his best friend’s family, as if he had carried misfortune to the farmhouse like ‘a virus on the treads of his shoes.’ The characterisation is well-considered and carefully-crafted, but I found the book failed to live up the suspense promised at the start.
Indeed, At Hawthorn Time bursts into life rather like spring blossom. A car crash on a country road; two cars written off and wheels left spinning. The scene is set and the tension mounts from the very first page . Unfortunately, like weeds burgeoning as summer comes in, the profusion of words threatens to suffocate the storyline. Suspense, pace and narrative voice are often sacrificed to the author’s determination to wax lyrical about every mundane detail. There is a certain didactic quality to her observations of the natural world which, though fascinating, are perhaps a little self-indulgent.
Harrison’s blog, in word and image, is a feast of smoky forest scenes and foraged fruit. It is clear that nature writing is both her strength and her absorbing passion. Bringing such subjective emotion into this, her second novel, is a bold move. One almost feels that the characters are a subtext for some ancient life-force stalking through the pages. The effect is disorientating and unusual and, while the writing is so rich in places it bears re-reading, the narrative lacks pace. I found myself somewhat bogged down in prose, which hindered my enjoyment of a worthwhile story. I would certainly recommend At Hawthorn Time for its artistic merit; much of the description lends itself to illustration, or annotation, but as a contemporary, commercial novel, I’m just not sure how well it works.