More Reading: Clay and At Hawthorn Time

From the “I don’t review books, but I have some things to say about these books” department.

Takeaway: I really liked Clay and At Hawthorn Time. You might, too.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about nature, the environment, and climate change. I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction, because I need to know THINGS, from policy and promises to deadlines and measurements to definitions and examples. But I also read personal essay collections—some focusing on the writer’s relationship to one plot of land or geographic region, others about a specific subject (such as trees or moss). The fact-and-policy nonfiction is interesting but often hopeless; the personal essays are lovely and helpful, even if the writer’s reality doesn’t mirror mine.

Recently I’ve been thinking beyond nonfiction to fiction—specifically, about the ways writers of fiction show relationships between their characters and the natural world. From long-ago literature classes, I dimly remember that novels were deemed “good” if they were set in a place so special that the story couldn’t be extricated from it. When people say “the landscape was like another character,” I think they’re somehow getting at the same thing. Writers like Ivan Doig, Kent Haruf, and Willa Cather come to mind. Off the top of my head, Louise Erdrich and Angie Abdou (especially The Canterbury Trail) are a couple of contemporary novelists working in the same space.

But—and there’s nothing WRONG with this—these writers’ work feels people-centric. Natural things happen and influence what the people do, but the books are still all about the human characters.

Enter Melissa Harrison, author of two novels: Clay (2013) and At Hawthorn Time (2015). In both novels, “nature” (it feels so dismissive to refer to the huge giant natural world in that way) is the center around which the human story revolves. The two novels do it a little differently.

Clay begins—and ends—with a “little wedge-shaped city park,” a purposely nondescript sort of place that exist in cities, and is often a neighbourhood’s only form of “nature.” The novel begins (after a prologue) on St. Bartholomew’s day (August 24; I had to look it up) and continues through a full year, with chapters generally dated by the Anglican calendar. Throughout this year, people cross paths, develop relationships, come and go, see lovely and horrible things, and generally do the things that people do.

At Hawthorn Time also focuses on land with relatively definite boundaries—not the whole of England, just one part. There’s a modern highway, which we know from the prologue plays a role in the plot. There are also the old highways—Roman remnants, and even pre-Roman tracks—that are remembered only by the landscape itself and by people like Jack, a man used to “living rough” and working as an agricultural labourer. There’s a village, a vicarage, a manor house, a Georgian house, walking paths, car parks, working farms, and named places—this landscape is inhabited. As in Clay, the people who live in the area have their own desires and concerns, their own paths (haha) to follow and choices to make.

It’s not a spoiler to either book to say that at the end, it’s the land that remains. In Clay, at the end of the year, the park is still there, though many of its human neighbors have moved on and all have changed in some way. In At Hawthorn Time, the ending (which is sad for some, neutral for others, and even hopeful for yet others) reminds you that this region has been inhabited for a long time, by many generations of people who have come and gone.

That’s what I find to be different. One of the simplest questions to ask about a book is whether it ended in a satisfying way—whether that’s a “happily ever after,” a “sadder but wiser,” a “missed opportunity,” or something else. I found these books to be immensely satisfying. And that’s partly because the characters, though interesting in their own ways, are temporary. A century ago, someone put in bulbs; today, someone may tend a garden in that same spot, or it might lie under a highway. The point is, the spot is still there. The humans are different. It's oddly reassuring. 

I also found the books just lovely to read. The vivid images and close observations have made me look more closely at what’s growing around me now, in August, before the summer inevitably turns toward autumn.

So: read and enjoy.