All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison is set in a small world, the world of Wych Farm and the village of Elmbourne, in the inter-war years. The story is introduced by Edith June Mather, now an old lady, and transitions into the story of one summer when she was a teenager. Hanging over the first few pages is an unspoken warning that events so long in the past can be forgotten or recalled in error and that Edith may not be a reliable storyteller.
But All Among the Barley is more than a coming-of-age tale; it is a story of society adapting to change, a story which resonates today. It is 1933 in East Anglia and Edie Mather is thirteen years old, a clever well-read child who longs to fit in. She lives on the family farm where hardship is an everyday fact. Edie, balancing between childhood and womanhood, is unsure of what she should do with her life, unaware she has choices and at times overwhelmed by her seeming lack of power. Superstitions become real to her. This is a book combining the pragmatic facts of daily farm life, the looming presence of anti-semitism and fascism, with teenage volatility, fantasy and a little witchery. Into this tight-knit rural world walks city reporter Connie FitzAllen who is writing about the loss of the old rural ways. Connie becomes a catalyst for change for the whole community, not just Edie, and in ways not at first obvious. Despite initial distrust of strangers, the locals and Edie’s family become used to Connie’s presence and she becomes a stand-in older sister for Edie, dispensing advice and pushing behavioural boundaries.
Writing about nature with as light a hand as the flight of the birds she describes, Harrison combines agricultural change, rural poverty, the rise of anti-semitism, and the changing role of women. The role models available to Edie are her mother, who worked the land in place of men during the Great War but reverted to being a housewife afterwards; her sister Mary, married young and with a baby she is not sure she loves; and Connie, who tells Edie there is life outside Elmbourne. Harvest time approaches and decisions must be made; Edie’s father must sell his crop at the right time to get the best price while Edie, uncertain whose advice to listen to, receives a job offer based in the nearby town. In the heat of summer, reality merges with imagination and Edie loses the ability to judge what is real.
A beautiful and tragic novel flawed only by its slow descriptive pace and a rather sudden ending. I was left with the feeling that perhaps the author tackled too many issues for such a calm, contemplative novel.
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