‘All Among the Barley’ by Melissa Harrison tells the story of fourteen-year-old Edie Mather, living at Wych Farm in the East Anglian countryside in 1933 with her family. The impact of the Great War and the Depression is still being felt and the fickle nature of the weather and the outcome of the harvest are a constant worry. Bookish Edie is naïve and impressionable and the arrival of former Suffragette Constance FitzAllen brings new ideas to the community and repercussions for the Mather family.
I had wondered if the portrayal of rural life in ‘All Among the Barley’ might be too whimsical and bucolic for my taste, but this aspect is depicted unsentimentally by Harrison as far from idyllic. The underlying political and economic tension is the driver of the story with the rise of nationalism providing the main focus and the novel looks more broadly at the consequences of subscribing to any narrow viewpoint without considering the bigger picture. The farming industry has also arrived at a significant crossroads for change with mechanisation on the horizon in a context where many remain attached to the traditional way of doing things. As Constance’s political motivations become more apparent, a fragile and precarious atmosphere begins to emerge and makes the ending all the more striking despite not being much of a surprise.
Constance’s bohemian ways and patronising enquiries about rural life for the magazine articles she writes cause a sense of unease among most of the Mather family who are slow to warm to her. However, her presence, charisma and urban background are particularly significant for Edie whose options in life are limited to helping on the farm, becoming a governess or getting married. In Edie’s deftly drawn characterisation, there are some light shades of ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan and also ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín in the coming-of-age themes which demonstrate how she feels restricted by her current surroundings yet equally unsure of how to navigate the adult world ahead of her.
‘All Among the Barley’ is quietly gripping and the tension in the plot is managed very effectively. It is Harrison’s third novel and I certainly intend to read more of her work which includes short stories and non-fiction and engages with themes related to the natural world.