One of the books Simon Savidge gave me when he visited the U.S. in September for our road trip to Booktopia was a signed copy of Melissa Harrison’s second novel At Hawthorn Time. Given the excitement of the trip and the heaps of books I acquired along the way, it is no surprise that I didn’t pay much attention to this book until I picked it out of my TBR pile last week. What I discovered as I began reading is that the novel is almost like two books in one. On the one hand there is a compelling narrative revolving around four people: a disaffected, somewhat estranged married couple who have recently moved from London to try their hand at rural life; a socially awkward 19-year old village boy; and a itinerant laborer who feels more at home in nature and just wants to be left alone. On the other hand there are brief, but beautiful pastoral descriptions of florae and faunae threaded throughout the story. Sometimes these descriptions have a direct relationship with the story and at other times they serve as background, but they never seem out of place or superfluous.
As I sit back and think about the devastating conclusion to the book I am struck by how deeply the nature theme is layered throughout the action and lives of the people in the book. Without being obvious or cloying or in any way cliche, the natural world serves as metaphor for everything the humans experience. Seasons, new beginnings, the passage of time, decay, violence, sudden death, uncertainty, fragility. Perhaps I belabor this point because it didn’t feel that way as I read it, thankfully. Nothing worse than feeling like an author is trying to be clever.
On a more surface level I was drawn into the lives of the characters and the community they inhabited. And, although you don’t need to to love the book, I loved the descriptions of the natural world. At some point over the past decade I began to really appreciate the natural world in a way that I had ignored previously. I think part of it was meeting my husband who is an avid gardener and who brought me back into contact with growing things. Part of it was seeing the Masai Mara in Kenya. Part of it was seeing an English hedgerow up close and really noticing the biodiversity it contains. Part of it is seeing how much wildlife there is in our DC neighborhood. Harrison taps into all of this in a wonderful way. In addition to weaving it throughout the story, she begins each chapter with brief notes about what is in bud or bloom and what the birds and insects are up to. I found myself Googling a lot. This is what I mean about two books in one. I could see Harrison taking those same headings and writing a wonderful garden/nature memoir at some point. I hope she does.