Book Review

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

all among the barley

I loved Melissa Harrison’s novels Clay and At Hawthorn Time, and I was thrilled to win a signed copy of her latest novel in a Children in Need auction last year.

The autumn of 1933 is the most beautiful Edie Mather can remember, although the Great War still casts its shadow over the fields and villages around her beloved home, Wych Farm.

Constance FitzAllen arrives from London to document fading rural traditions and beliefs. For Edie, who must soon face the unsettling pressures of adulthood, the glamorous and worldly outsider appears to be a godsend. But there is more to the older woman than meets the eye.

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.

All Among the Barley is narrated by the fourteen-year-old Edie Mather.  She is an odd child, less practical than those around her, and prone to wandering off with her chores left unfinished while she gets lost in a book.  Growing up on a bustling farm, she is constantly surrounded by others – her family, the farm hands, neighbours etc. – and yet it’s clear that she is lonely, particularly since her older sister has married and left the family home, yet she doesn’t recognise the feeling for what it is:

Loneliness was something that happened to old people, but I was young and had all my family around me, so it couldn’t very well have been that.

Edie was a character that I worried about throughout the novel, although the reasons changed as the novel progressed.  On the cusp of womanhood – and in the thirties, her father already has ideas of marrying her off as soon as she comes of age – she has been protected by those around her, particularly her mother.  Unfortunately, this protection has led Edie to be ignorant of many things.  Her first period comes as a complete shock, and the unwelcome attentions of Alf Rose – a friend of her brothers from a nearby farm – leave her uncomfortable yet unable to talk to anyone, not knowing if she is worrying about something that is completely normal.

Set in the interwar years, All Among the Barley deftly highlights the attitudes towards women at that time.  I felt that this was most obviously done through the arrival of the trouser wearing Constance (Connie) FitzAllen, who has travelled from London in order to document the traditions of rural England.  She questions everyone, asking about farming methods and the impact of new machinery, but also the “women’s work” of tending hearth as well as the folklore of the area.  Somewhat surprisingly, Connie is tolerated by all, and befriends Edie, who is extremely taken with this bold and intelligent woman.  I think that Connie provides a stark contrast to most of the women in the novel, although Ada, Edie’s mother, also shows her feminist qualities, albeit in a more subtle fashion for fear of her husband’s fists.

The novel also has a lot to say about racism and tolerance that is still, sadly, relevant today.  Reading this, it’s disheartening to think that the same sentiments, perhaps with a different target, are still being spouted by some, particularly with the current political turmoil in the UK:

Well, I’m no anti-Semite, of course.  But they’re not from here, and if we’re not careful they’ll mar the character of England forever – not to mention the way they undercut wages and take work away from ordinary people, just as the Irish did…

It’s so disappointing to think how far we’ve come in some ways, and yet in others we’ve made no progress whatsoever.

Finishing this novel, I felt absolutely devastated.  Oh, Edie!  Throughout there is a sense of inevitability as to what’s to come, and yet I read on, hoping that I was wrong.  No spoilers, of course, but it’s a long time since I’ve felt so utterly caught up in a fictional character’s life in this way.  Absolutely brilliant, and I loved the ending, devastating as it was.

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