Melissa Harrison’s beautiful novel is concerned with how, despite our self obsessions, humankind is but a blink in the eye of a fly compared to the rolling permanence of nature: and, as such, maybe the perfect antidote for anyone who wants to escape, at least momentarily, from the brutal reality of post-Brexit Britain.
Howard and Kitty have moved to the countryside for their retirement. Jack is a drifter searching the land for work and a deeper connection. Meanwhile Jamie, a local lad, is growing up…
We know from the start that things are not going to turn out well: as the novel opens we stumble across a fatal car accident which pushes the reader towards seeking out clues and hints of what is to come. It quickly becomes clear that Howard and Kitty’s relationship with the countryside is as fragile as the relationship between themselves, while Jamie’s adulthood brings a break with the land which he has grown up with. Only drifter Jack remains at one with nature, a quasi-mystical relationship which will set him apart form humankind, perhaps forever.Harrison is a great nature writer and laces her novel with passages which constantly emphasise the ‘incoming’ nature of the human characters, pushing into stark relief the smallness of humankind, the intransigence of nature:
‘The swallows that nested in the eaves of Manor Lodge bore the same genes as the ones who had built the first mud cups there nearly 150 years before; the swallows as the rectory went back even further. Every April they arrived in the village from Africa, lining up like musical notes on the telephone wires and swooping for beakfuls of mud from the banks of the dew pond on Culverkeys Farm to repair their nests. When they had first moved in Howard had complained about them shitting on the Audi, but Kitty said they brought happiness to a home. Now they just parked the cars a little further from the side wall.’
But even though we race towards the denouement, to death, life and beauty spring up all around us, each chapter prefaced with an inkling of such joys, putting this novel in stark contrast to a number of other recent ‘nature’ novels (‘Beastings’; or Lucy Wood’s ‘Weathering’).
As fresh as spring, ‘At Hawthorn Time’ is a thoughtful, beautiful novel, which urged me to seek out her other books, first novel ‘Clay’ and her most recent book, ‘Rain’ – a work of non-fiction detailing ‘Four Walks in English Weather’.