At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison
*Borrowed from the library.
At Hawthorn Time opens with an accident, an early morning collision on a quiet A road in rural England. A brash, fast "muscle car" has hit an Audi at a junction, and three people are caught up in the tangle of metal and broken glass. A boy "upside down and veiled in blood", a "slumped figure...perfectly still" and "a third body, face down, on the road." The tableau is still by the time the reader comes upon it, the impact and the noise having happened a precise seven minutes earlier; the birds are already returning to the surrounding blossom-rich hedges. It is a late spring dawn, getting on with it's business as though nothing has happened. Then, with a drawn breath, the novel backs off this scene, reverses away from it in time and relocates a week or more earlier. It changes tense - from the intimacy of the first person to third person omniscience - and changes tone too, from the language of disaster to the language of ordinary things.
The setting is an unassuming village called Lodeshill, "an in-between unpretentious sort of place", the kind that you live in rather than visit. It has a church, a drinker's pub, a handful of functioning farms; it's grand old Manor House is now the deserted second home of some rich family. Howard and his wife Kitty - two out of our four main characters - have just retired there, after a lifetime in suburban London. He collects and repairs old radios, while she pursues an old dream as a landscape artist. Their grown up children come to visit at weekends, and they bumble along together in a sort of remote proximity. Nineteen year old Jamie lives with his parents down the street, working two low paid jobs in nearby industrial estates, and spending all his spare time and money on his beloved car. He visits his elderly granddad, a survivor of eastern POW camps and goes for the odd pint at the local pub. When he was younger he had a best friend, Alex, who lived at Culverkeys, the farm next door. Alex went away suddenly when they were teenagers and the farm is up for auction now but Jamie still feels a strong and powerful affection for the place and the land around it.
Our last point of view is Jack, a homeless tramp who wants nothing more than to walk the paths and byways of the country, working where he can, sleeping where he likes. He has just been released from prison after a spell for trespassing, and is supposed to be holed up in a probation hostel but he can't stand it. He has to get out, has to get back into the landscape or lose what sanity he has left. He's been to Lodeshill before, working the asparagus beds in spring for cash in hand no questions asked. It used to be you could get odd jobs on farms all year round (lambing, picking asparagus and soft fruit, apples, harvest) but now they're less easy to come by; they want you to sign papers and be above board. They want to own a bit of you.
The narrative weaves Howard, Kitty, Jamie and Jack together with the thread of the season. Each chapter is headed with a checklist of spring: "Wild garlic" one starts, then "dog violets, sycamore bud burst. A cuckoo calling." Each character is more or less aware of the natural world around them, warming up and changing face. Some, like Jamie and Jack, have a deeper connection to place and nature than others. For her part Kitty is trying her best to see and be apart of Lodeshill, though she doesn't feel like she is getting it right, while Howard would prefer to be indoors. However they experience it, the spring is inexorable. It goes on around them with unstoppable force, in a timeless round that serves to remind us and them of the momentariness of any action. As their lives meet and flex, the birds keep nesting and the hawthorn keeps flowering, in spite of all the changes of modern life.
Harrison's book riffs long and deeply on this theme of time and the annual cycle of the year. The focus of the novel is split: one eye on the intimate and specific experiences of four people over the course of one week and the other on the predictable rhythms of the earth and its creatures. I said that the book began with a car accident, and it does, but before that it begins with the road on which the accident takes place:
Imagine a Roman road. No, go back further: imagine a broad track, in use for centuries by the tribes who lived and fought and died on these islands, and whose blood lives on in us. When the Romans came they paved it, and for a short while it was busy with their armies and trade. After they left it decayed, though it wasn't forgotten; it came to make the line beyond which the Vikings lived by their intractable Danish creed. Later it became a drovers' road, trodden by sheep and cattle; then a turnpike, taking travellers, and mail, to Wales and beyond. Now, though, it is simply an A-road, known around these parts as the Boundway but marked on maps with letters and numbers alone.
In this way At Hawthorn Time makes simple life events dense with history, enriches ordinary emotions - grief for a lost friend, guilt about a long ago affair, fear for the death of a parent - with layers of time. The unrelenting pattern of nature is both a comfort and an affront in light of the car accident we know is coming. In spite of all this 'life goes ever on' stuff we can't help but ask ourselves: who lives, who dies, whose story ends during the accident on the Boundway? Harrison is sensitive to the premise that she's set up, to the fate she is propelling her characters towards. This isn't a book about how an accident or a death is just a moment in infinite time and so, in the scheme of things, is insignificant. It captures dual registers of significance: both the enduring and the ephemeral are important. So Jamie's love for his granddad, Howard's enthusiasm for his daughter's return from university, Kitty's earnest need to capture something important in her painting are set in the context of the long road that stretches back into the distant past. Their experiences aren't dwarfed against it, they are not in opposition to it. They are part of it.
Really, really lovely stuff. Thus continues my excellent reading streak of 2016.
Quick AOB: I have been convinced to reprise the 'pop-up reading group' idea at work. These are one off gatherings for topical bookish discussion, and the next one will coincide with the Bailey's Prize announcement. We're going to be reading last year's winner - Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing - and meeting in the evening on Monday 6th June at the central library for coffee and chat about it. If anyone is in the York area, do come along and keep me company!