Books – All Among The Barley & The Gutter Prayer

1930’s rural England seen through the eyes of a troubled young girl coming of age and a high-octane rollercoaster fantasy set in a bleak, violent and ancient city were my January reads.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among The Barley is meticulously researched. Early in the book it felt heavy-handed, almost over the top. Edie Mather, the protagonist, tells us her mother won’t use the brick oven for bread but the range, as the former’s too dirty and too much work. She tells us the farmhand Doble must be after rats in one of the barns if he’s tied his trousers at the ankle, while the landscape is full of peewits, earthstars, chanterelles, dockweed, mousetail, shepherd’s needle and charlock, none of which I’d ever heard of and none are given descriptions. But that’s as it should be and I was glad of it. Harrison’s explanations, when we get them, are subtle, woven well. In a first person story the person is in and of their surroundings, and many mundane things wouldn’t warrant explanation. For my own secondary world narrators, this is a golden rule, and readers have struggled with the unfamiliar terms. Yet it’s the fabric of these assumptions throughout the novel that give the narrator their character and belonging, give the world its flavour, its sense of place.

Harrison also weaves some beautiful sentences in the book that work both to evoke the idyll of the natural world and inform us of Edie’s character, of the way she notices such things:

At dawn, dew silvered the spiders’ silk strung between grass blades in our pastures so that the horses left trails where they walked, like the wakes of slow vessels in still water.

The plot follows the events of a particular summer and harvest, where an outsider to the farming community, Constance, comes from London to record and celebrate the old farming traditions that she fears are being lost. The bemusement and hostility to her city ways in some quarters is matched by a calm acceptance of her willingness to work and good nature, which wins as many over as it does raise the hackles of others.

There’s a beautifully subtle indication that her family’s principle farmhand, John, and her mother, might have feelings for each other but Edie’s narration is overtly guileless. As the harvest approaches, Edie’s first sexual experience cements a growing awareness in the reader that she’s troubled; perhaps naive, confused certainly and unhappy with the realisation that her life in the village and on the farm is entirely mapped out and full of hard labour. Yet, when Constance and a former teacher separately offer her chances at leaving she’s terrified at the thought.

Harrison’s theme of the conflict between progress and tradition is encapsulated both within the fragile Edie as well as in the remarks such as her mother’s and grandfather’s, that progress is both necessary and welcome if it reduces the labour of farmers and the lottery of their harvests. Yet against this, we learn Constance has fascist and antisemitic sympathies and rails against the challenge of international markets on the demand and prices got for the farmers’ produce at home. This forms the crux of the quite gripping climax to the book where all the threads that Edie half understands, many hidden by her siblings and father, the threads of her own thoughts and mind, and the pivotal involvement of Constance come together to change her life irrevocably.

Edie is wonderfully realised. Harrison, as with all the best writers of first person stories, disappears and leaves Edie before us. It educated me on the rhythms of agricultural life, the work, the fickleness of nature, even in a world as recent and as advanced as early 20th century England. It reminded me of the research I’d done years ago, preparing for Snakewood, that people by and large would never travel more than ten miles from their place of birth in their lifetime, and thus know that place deeply, something I hope to echo, in my own primitive way, with the protagonist of my next novel as she returns home to her family living off fenland and bogland. One day I may write a character as nuanced and well-grounded in her world as Edie is. All Among The Barley is a beautiful book.

Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer is, I believe, his debut novel of original work, though far from his first published work. It became obvious in the fascinating first chapter that Gareth’s been writing for a long time. The city of Guerdon follows in the tradition of the great fantasy cities such as Ankh-Morporkh, Ambergris and, perhaps closest in tone, New Crobuzon. As with all those cities, Guerdon defines and breaks its people on the back of its history. Hanrahan brings a profound invention to his world, in a similar vein to Mieville, and the protagonists get on with surviving the pending doom of desperate malevolent monsters, in Guerdon’s case, the Black Iron Gods. The wider world outside Guerdon is a world where gods go to war through and with their subjects, an apocalyptic place that sees Guerdon maintain its peace only by being an arms dealer to all sides. We see nothing of that world, but this is book one of a trilogy. What we do see is a city maintaining a fragile existence in the face of the burgeoning power of the alchemists, creating terrifying creatures that, brilliantly, feel like a mashup of magic, genetic engineering and steampunk. I’ll never look at a candle in quite the same way again thanks to the tallowmen!

The main characters are a trio of downtrodden thieves that find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, a part human part golem called Spar (think Game of Thrones’ ‘Grayscale’ disease meets Fantastic Four’s Thing), Carillon, a teenage girl with a secret and a ghoul called Rat. It’s a great setup, each with their troubles, their flaws and each utterly loyal to each other. They’re easy to root for as underdogs, but it’s Carillon and Spar in particular that carry the novel in the face of the conspiracies and the unfolding crisis that sees them, naturally, tested to their limits.

Where Perdido Street Station offers something more cerebral and gothic, particularly with its wider reality, The Gutter Prayer goes all Michael Bay action movie. It’s a breathless rollercoaster of a book, full of dramatic set pieces and a clear sense of good and evil to anchor you through the twists and turns. The finale was excellent and pleasingly unexpected, setting up the next book nicely. The Gutter Prayer is great fun and hugely inventive in its worldbuilding. A compelling new world has arrived in epic fantasy.

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