Book Review for “All Among the Barley” by Melissa Harrison.
Summary: “Fourteen-year-old Edie [Edith] Mather lives with her family at Wych Farm, where the shadow of the Great War still hangs over a community impoverished by the Great Depression. Glamorous outsider Constance FitzAllen arrives from London, determined to make a record of fading rural traditions and beliefs, and to persuade Edie’s family to return to the old ways rather than embrace modernity. She brings with her new political and social ideas – some far more dangerous than others. For Edie, who has just finished school and must soon decide what to do with her life, Connie appears to be a godsend. But there is more to the older woman than meets the eye. As harvest time approaches and the pressures mount on the entire Mather family, Edie must decide whose version of reality to trust, and how best to save herself from disaster.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, England – Suffolk; Other Categories: Novel, Coming-of-Age.
Let me first explain the title of this review. There is an old song with the same title as this novel that includes the line “All among the barley, who would not be blithe,” which I thought was the most appropriate line for this review. To me, it means to ask the question, “who couldn’t be happy when they’re among the barley,” but that question also wonders why wouldn’t someone be happy among the barley? And this is exactly what Harrison investigates – why isn’t Edith happy if she’s among the barley? What is keeping her from living a carefree life?
This is one of those very fascinating books that really is character driven, and not plot driven – which is something I truly appreciate. Despite that, it isn’t like nothing happens here, and in fact, quite a bit happens, and not all of it is very pleasant. However, there is nothing gruesome or explicit in this novel, which has a very poetic, and dreamlike quality to it. What we do witness is how this 14-year-old girl moves through her familiar life, becoming increasingly at odds with her mostly sheltered world.
Now I realize that the term coming-of-age combined with a protagonist who is a teenager might signal that this is a YA novel, but despite this, I could not really recommend this to young adults. This isn’t because there are any graphic scenes here, although one scene is highly suggestive, but what happens is never named beyond saying that one character “touched” the other. (No, Sally Rooney has proven that you can write much more explicitly about underaged couples in bed for the YA crowd.) However, one reason why I can’t call this a YA book is because of the sophisticated language here. You see, Harrison’s prose here is very lyrical, and she doesn’t hold back on using poetic phrasing. Harrison also doesn’t spell things out, and the reader needs to infer much from her text to understand what is going on.
Another reason why I can’t call this a YA novel is because this story comes across as being told with a very mature, adult vision. In fact, at the outset we see that this first-person story is told in retrospect from the viewpoint of the main protagonist, many years after the events in the book. Despite this, Harrison also imbues the storytelling with a good deal of innocence, so that we really get into the mindset of this young girl. Yes, sophisticated innocence; I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but if you read this novel, it will make perfect sense. This is especially true when you read the epilogue, because then you’ll understand where both of these elements come together in a perfect mixture.
To be absolutely honest, I’m having a hard time writing this review, which often happens when a book is so beautiful. You see, when you read a book like this one, there’s a feeling of serenity together with the underlying tension of the conflict with the characters. You notice how the setting is carefully shown to the reader so you can visualize where you are and what’s happening. You notice how answers to questions aren’t the obvious ones, and how the author portrays people as three-dimensional and not flat caricatures. For all this, I have to warmly recommend this novel, and give it a full 5/5 stars.
Bloomsbury Publishing released “All Among the Barley” by Melissa Harrison in 2018. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#40 for 2021, because I finished reading it before January 1, 2022 – although I will link it on the January page of the 2022 Reading Challenge).