At Hawthorn Time tells the story of three sets of people: Howard and Kitty have moved to Lodeshill from London; Jamie, 19, has lived in the village with his family his whole life, and Jack is an outsider, more comfortable in nature than in society.
Following a short prologue, the novel begins with Jack leaving a hostel in London with his tatty notebooks, some cooking utensils, a tent and a sleeping bag. We’re told he’s self-educated. He’s done short stints in a number of prisons for breaching bail, vagrancy and selling pot. He used to be a protester but now moves about, working on farms.
Growing ever more unloosed from what seems to sustain the rest of us, more stubborn with every arrest and stranger and more elliptical in his thinking, Jack became, with the passing of decades, less like modern man and more like the fugitive spirit of English rural rebellion. Or – to some, at least – mad.
Jack makes his way to Lodeshill for asparagus picking and the farms he knows will take him on, no questions asked.
Howard and Kitty’s marriage is on the rocks. Howard sold his haulage business so Kitty could fulfil her dream of moving to the countryside and now they live in a nice house in Lodeshill where they bicker with each other and sleep in separate rooms. But Howard didn’t want to move to the countryside and feels like an outsider, assuming that the locals view them as incomers. He spends his days doing up old wirelesses and enjoying a beer or three. Kitty goes out painting the countryside and spending time with her new artist friend, Claire.
Cars are Jamie’s passion or, at least, his car: a Corsa. As if the time, money and energy he spends on it aren’t enough, Jamie’s family and closest friendship are his biggest source of worry. His mum suffers from depression; his maternal grandfather is ninety-three and becoming increasingly withdrawn, while his best friend, Alex, has left and the farm he lived on next door to Jamie is being sold following his father’s death.
This was Jamie’s earliest memory: a magnet drawn dripping from black water on a rope. His grandfather’s strong hand prising a bright blade from it; the red drops hanging from his fingertips. And then, as he shook it off, the old man’s blood landing warm on Jamie’s lips and streaking the back of his hand when he tried to wipe it away.
Nature is Harrison’s other main character. She interweaves the natural world into the plot through each of the characters relationship to it – positive and negative. Jack is closely connected to the natural world: his observations, which he writes in his tatty notebooks form the novel’s chapter headings, rooting (sorry, couldn’t resist) the book firmly in flora and weather.
There was sickness and sickness, Jack thought, pausing by the roadside and looking up at an ash. Always the heart-rot and bracket fungus and gall wasps and wood-boring beetles, the old to-and-fro. But now there was something else: a hand on the trunk and he could feel it, like sadness in an embrace. The ash trees were steeling themselves.
He remembered the graceful elms. So did the rooks, you could hear the loss of them in their chatter still. Things didn’t always turn out as you feared, though; the countryside was still full of saplings, but fugitive, sheltered in hedgerows and abetted by taller trees. One day they might come back. It was something Jack tried to believe.
The novel’s prologue details the road, known as the Boundway, and the car crash which happens on it. It’s not clear who’s observing the crash nor who’s involved in it. This helps to drive the novel, creating tension, particularly as it begins to come clear who the people involved must be. However, Harrison also creates tension via the idea of the natural world dying. Key characters here are Howard with his love of London and wilful ignorance of the countryside and Jamie, who seems to embody the future; what will win out, his love of his car and his desire to leave Lodeshill or his love for his grandfather and all he’s taught him?
Harrison doesn’t leave the reader with any easy answers about nature or the character’s dilemmas, but the novel’s stronger for posing questions which the reader needs to ponder after they’ve closed the final page.
At Hawthorn Time is an interesting, engaging read. The variety of well-drawn characters combined with the structure, pace and language of the natural world make it clear why this was shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year Award and is now on the Bailey’s Prize longlist.