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All Among the Barley

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As harvest time approaches and pressures mount on the entire community, Edie must find a way to trust her instincts and save herself from disaster. Suffice to say, although it might appear to be ‘only’ a book about 1930’s Suffolk (probably) countryside, don’t let that lull you into a false sense of “it’s all about the pretty scenery and animals”. Not every reader will enjoy All Along the Barley, but for those of us who are fascinated by the much slower pace of life of country people who lived much closer to natural realities, this is a very moving read. 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! Nor is it reasonable, in painting a warts-and-all picture of tough rural life in the 1930s to condemn those who would still claim that life was better then and much that was precious has been lost in the stampede to modernity, consumerism, globalisation and diversity.

It’s a great historical read – a combination of characters you can feel for, great writing and a brilliant recreation of time and place. 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. But in this idyllic setting there are darker dramas afoot, a hint that one war has past leaving its scars on people, while we are aware of another just around the corner.

While Connie may be keen to celebrate tradition, those around Edie are aware of the need for adaption and for balancing progress against tradition. There is no reason, of course, why those who like the taste of Melissa’s “murky broth” (hopefully without the anti-Semitism) should necessarily graduate to the odious belief system which led to the Nazi Holocaust. I loved the appearance of Edmund, the corncrake, a species which has been endangered due to the loss of habitat brought about by changes in farming methods. The wheat, too, was ripening: the stalks were still-blue-green, but the tops of the ears were fading to a greenish-yellow, a tint that would become richer and spread down the ears as they fattened to finally gild the stalks and leaves. Like two recent books I have read – “There, There” and “In a Mad and Furious City” ends with what seems an unnecessary dramatic finale.

At Hawthorn Time was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, while Rain: Four Walks in English Weather was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize. In fact, it could be seen as a political novel disguised as a coming-of-age story, albeit it in a very nuanced way! 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. The hardness of the characters worlds as well as the peaceful landscape full of wildlife, are beautifully portrayed.Again, it’s all very subtlety done, woven into the fabric of the story to avoid it feeling too overt.

I loved reading this story and I was encapsulated in Edie’s somewhat sheltered world and felt very protective of her. The description of the role and treatment of women during the 1930s was very interesting, too, - George, Edie’s father says that women and land should be productive and not allowed to lie idle.What holds this all together is Harrison’s lovely understated writing and her lyrical descriptions of the natural world. Harrison brings to life a fictional village in 1930s Suffolk, England, all through the eyes of the young, fairly naive farmer's daughter Edi Mather. I really enjoyed the way the author explores the nature of change and how people shape their own fortune through the way that they react to their circumstances. However, the gradually revealed pressure combined with distrust of change, and the entry of worldly affairs gave an interesting viewpoint of the times.

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