Smiling on the Scythe: A review of All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison 

The autumn of that year was the most beautiful I can remember. For weeks after harvest-tide the weather stayed fine, and only slowly that year did summer’s warmth leave the earth. 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.

All Among the Barley is the second book by Melissa Harrison I have read this year; and the first, At Hawthorn Time, readily prepared me for what was between its pages. I knew I wasn’t going to be reading a happy, uplifting book, but I also knew I was going to be treated to a slice of our natural world – a love and celebration of it, and beautiful detailed descriptions of nature and the changing seasons. It was, for me, a fair trade-off.

Fourteen year old Edith (Edie) finds friendship with journalist Constance FitzAllen when she becomes a regular visitor at the girl’s family farm. She has been commissioned to write a series of articles about upholding the old rural traditions for a magazine. Edie is captivated by her easy and confident personality and impressed by her charm and winning ways with people. But Constance is not all she seems and Edie has her own mounting troubles.

This is a novel with an undertone of disaster and some very dark themes. The personal is political here. Folklore, poverty, debt, mental breakdown, suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse, intertwine with both traditional and progressive ideas, industrial change and modernisation, class division, patriarchy, nationalism and emerging fascism.

The depiction of British rural life between the World Wars is captured like I’ve never encountered before in a novel, and its sense of realism communicated through it’s vivid detail of how life was lived, would not be out of place in a non-fiction book written at the time. The characters for me seem secondary to the big themes that are going on. But each character is perfectly placed to convey an idea or ideas essential to the storytelling of an exact time and place. At first, everything seems subtle and everyday, but then the realisation hits you that it is exactly this that leads on to the bigger things in life: the change, the fortune, the tragedy, the make or break.

All Among the Barley was an education for me. I learnt the names of plants, birds, words and phrases that I previously wasn’t familiar with, and happily looked them up. I now know what a landrail looks like and what a barley-rick is. I loved this aspect of it. Although not an entirely enjoyable novel, simply because of its subject matters, it has much beauty and depth.  I wholly recommend it’s talented author with her absolutely gorgeous nature writing and hypnotic prose.

Beautiful descriptions of rural England in the 1930s
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