All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

All Among the Barley – the third novel from the writer, critic and columnist, Melissa Harrison – is a beautiful evocation of rural life, rich in the English countryside’s rhythms and traditions during the interwar years. It is also an absorbing coming-of-age story in which the novel’s central protagonist is intrigued by the arrival of a visitor to the community, the spirited Constance (Connie) FitzAllen.

The novel is narrated by Edie Mather, a fourteen-year-old girl who lives at Wych Farm with her parents, George and Ada Mather. Also living at the estate to help with the farm work are Edie’s brother, Frank, their paternal grandfather and two farmhands, John and Doble.

A preoccupied, bookish girl at heart, Edie is something of a loner, one who prefer books to the company of other children. She is also interested in superstitions – witch marks, curses, forms of protection and the like – drawing on an active imagination fuelled by folklore.

Into Edie’s life comes Constance FitzAllen, a forthright, engaging young woman from the city who has come to document the countryside’s age-old traditions to aid with their preservation. At first, Ada Mather is suspicious of this stranger; however, she is soon won over by Constance’s willingness to listen and to modify her behaviour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Constance’s presence awakens something in Edie – a feeling that she is being seen in a new light. Here is someone who appears to be interested in the impressionable young Edie as a person, viewing her as an individual with her own thoughts and opinions, not just another member of the Mather family.

I smiled back, and realised that I was going to see her. I felt as though she perceived me more clearly than my family did, for they all took me for granted, whereas she seemed curious about who I was and what I thought. Although I did not know her well yet, I felt more real, more interesting even, when I saw myself through Constance’s eyes. (p. 75)

Running through the book is the need for farmers to balance the preservation of traditional methods with the drive for progression and change. As Constance begins to spend more time with the Mathers, her views on certain political and financial principles begin to emerge. While George Mather shares some of Constance’s beliefs on the benefits of protection, John, the experienced farmhand, takes a more open view, sowing the seeds for future tensions to emerge.

‘You can’t trust politicians, George. They lie and lie,’ Connie said. She had stayed on to eat with us, although I wasn’t quite sure if she’d been invited or had simply not left. ‘They’ll tell you the sky is green if they think it’ll win them a vote. We should have proper import controls to protect our native English formers – it’s the only way…’ (p. 113)

‘But this country must be able to feed itself without relying on imports,’ Connie said, ‘and that means ensuring decent honest Englishman like you, George, can continue to farm. (p. 114)

As the narrative progresses, we begin to realise – even if Edie remains blind to it – that Constance’s interest in the traditions of English life extends to holding prejudices against outsiders. In short, Miss FitzAllen harbours anti-Semitic views, beliefs that play a key role in the novel’s dramatic denouement.

Where the novel really excels is in its evocation of rural life in the 1930s – the book is set in the fictional Suffolk village of Elmbourne, an environment alive with the beauty of the natural world as the year passes from one season to the next. There is a lyricism in Harrison’s descriptions of the environment which manages to be both detailed and evocative.

In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes. Along the winding course of the River Stroud the alder carrs were studded with earthstars and chanterelles and dense with the rich, autumnal stink of rot; but crossing Long Piece towards the Lottens the sky opened and into austere equinoctial blue, where flocks of peewits wheeled and turned, flashing their broad wings black and white. (pp. 5–6)

The rhythms and rituals of farming are also beautifully portrayed, augmenting the novel’s captivating sense of time and place. Moreover, the novel captures the sense of loss inherent in the community as a consequence of the Great War. Some fifteen years on, the signs remain. From the empty pews at the church to the tools left idle in barns to the poorly stacked ricks due to a lack of skilled men, these silent absences are deeply felt.

All Among the Barley is an evocative hymn to a lost way of life, a slow-burning narrative that will draw patient readers in – particularly those with an interest in nature. It’s an excellent novel that touches on some important aspects of rural life. More specifically, the balance between tradition and progression; the stealthy rise of nationalism in the early ‘30s; the lack of opportunities for women in a male-dominated society; and perhaps most poignantly, societal attitudes towards women who experienced mental health issues at that time.

The novel’s epilogue is very affecting, a section in which seventy-year-old Edie contemplates her current situation – a life marked by events that took place during Constance’s visit. No spoilers, but it casts the remainder of the book in a somewhat different light, illuminating the tragic consequences of the visitor’s beliefs and actions. There are some very interesting points for discussion here – a great choice for book groups and solo readers alike. Plus, if you need any more persuading about the quality of this novel, I can point you in the direction of Max’s reading highlights for 2020 where it features prominently – there’s a link here

All Among the Barley is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

I’m hoping this piece will qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month, which you can read about here.

32 thoughts on “All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

  1. Liz

    I love Melissa Harrison’s writing and really enjoyed Clay and At Hawthorn Time. I always meant to read this one too so thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
  2. gertloveday

    I’ve never heard of Melissa Harrison and something about this tale reminded me of the writing of Elizabeth Berridge and I thought they might be contemporaries. But I just checked and Melissa Harrison is modern! One to follow up.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s definitely contemporary, although the world evoked here feels so representative of that time. I read quite a lot of literature that was written in the 1930s and ’40s, and the period detail in this novel seems very authentic. I can’t recall if you’ve read Winifred Holtby, but Harrison’s descriptions of the rhythms and preoccupations of rural life remind me a little of Holtby’s work. The interest in politics is another potential connection too, especially their impact on the community.

      Reply
  3. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    This sounds like a subtle and lovely book. I hadn’t realized until I read the comments that Melissa Harrison had also written Hawthorne Time, which has been on my TBR list since shortly after publication (I’m not making much progress on that list). I often tend to be drawn to novels touching on nature, family and group relationships and on how lives intersect and sometimes affect each other in unintended and unpredictable ways. In other words, it sounds like I should move Harrison up on my list! Wonderful review BTW.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It’s very much in the space you’ve described above, the sense of lives intersecting in ways that give rise to significant, unintended consequences. There’s also another theme that I haven’t even mentioned yet, that of Edie’s sexuality. She’s the object of a fair bit of unwelcome attention from Alf, a somewhat pushy boy from a neighbouring farm. Again, no spoilers, but it plays into Edie’s attraction to Constance…

      Reply
  4. A Life in Books

    This is my favourite Melissa Harrison novel. I read it in 2018 in the midst of post-referendum rancour which coloured my reading of it. Her descriptions of the natural world are gorgeous, aren’t they.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes. really beautiful. The political dynamic is present for sure, something that resonates with the rise of the far right across Europe in recent years. In fact, it could be seen as a political novel disguised as a coming-of-age story, albeit it in a very nuanced way!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’m sure! It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we can see different things in a book depending on our own preoccupations or state of mind at time of reading? In some ways, it’s quite similar to The Offing, which I’ve seen described (via Ben Myers himself) as an anti-Brexit novel disguised as a story about tea and scones. Again, it’s all very subtlety done, woven into the fabric of the story to avoid it feeling too overt.

          Reply
  5. Jane

    I haven’t read or heard of Melissa Harrison but this does sound a good read. I remember so clearly an older person talking to me as if I was a person when I was a similar age to Edie, it felt quite startling at the time!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a really beautiful book with some big themes threaded through the narrative. And yes, I can see how someone like Constance would make an lasting impression on a young girl, especially an adolescent like Edie. .

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Beautiful review Jacqui, and I hadn’t actually heard of the book until you mentioned it to me – and am intrigued by comparisons with A Month in the Country. The 1930s were such a fascinating and yet strange time, with old ways changing but many struggling to adapt. As for Bloomsbury, tha’s a tricky one! Though they don’t appear to be affiliated with one of the big conglomerates and declare themselves to be an independent publisher, they *are* a big outfit with lots of trustees etc! Maybe we’ll declare them to be a *big* indie and allow them honorary entry for the month!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the 1930s setting was a big part of the draw for for me – that and Melissa Harrison’s writing which is just so evocative and beautifully judged. As you say, it captures that sense of change, a portrait of English life at a key point in time, both politically and socially…

      As for whether Bloomsbury are an indie or not, no worries at all. I have something else from Handheld coming up which will definitely qualify for your indies extravaganza, without a doubt!

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    It sounds like Edie and Constance are marvelous characters to read about, though the latter’s opinions must be rather jarring to read these days. From the quotes the portrayal of the place does look amazing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they’re very engaging. It takes a while for Constance to show her true colours, but the hints are dotted here and there throughout . Plus, as you say, the sense of period and place is very strong – really beautifully judged. I definitely want to read At Hawthorn Time next…

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. buriedinprint

    This sounds like a very gentle read, quite different from the Laski. I’m always happy to find a bookish heroine as a friend on the page. How does she express her bookishness in this context? How did she find her books so far from libraries and shops?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good question! I’m not sure that’s covered in the novel. It’s just there as part of the background to Edie’s personality, if that makes sense?. She’s a bright girl, something of a loner, bookish rather than sporty – that kind of thing. Very easy to warm to as a character, especially for book lovers such as ourselves!

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        She still sounds like a character whose company I’d enjoy. But I do love a list of a few favourite reads, or a story of a single family member who understands the draw to narrative and always supplies a book or two when they visit…

        Reply

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