Review of Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time

by Tyler Beckett

Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time is only the author’s second novel but is an outstanding work for its deep engagement with the residents and natural world that make up her fictional village Lodeshill. Harrison draws on a small cast of narrators to witness how a changing world affects even remote British towns, perhaps these towns especially. This focus was particularly appealing for the way familiar problems (generational divides, struggling economies, a church in decline) apply to unfamiliar places, and as Hawthorn cycles between characters Harold, Kitty, Jamie, and Jack, the town and its challenges become familiar to the reader.

Part of how Harrison establishes the character of Lodeshill is through the beautiful descriptions of local nature, especially the flora that has always served as its backdrop. It is appropriate that the novel’s prologue features a retrospective to a time prior to the Roman occupation; when interacting with the natural features of the village, the characters are often impressed with a sense of the eternal in the wildlife. Though the fields and forests of Lodeshill are shaped by human industry it is still springtime, and each chapter begins with Jack’s terse but descriptive field notes detailing the ongoing cycle of flowering and growth.

The characters are also written in great detail and with compelling flaws, and their foibles are certainly part of why we keep reading. It is worth mentioning, however, that the characters aren’t given much to struggle against. Harold and Kitty’s marriage is failing, sure, but there’s no particular impetus, and both Jack and Jamie’s storylines are guilty of meandering a good deal. We are aware that the characters have major shortcomings, and we are even aware that some of them will be involved in a fatal car crash, as revealed in the prologue.

But the details of the crash are only given in summary in the prologue and epilogue, and none of the actions between make the crash particularly inevitable or likely. It is an event that the reader must look forward to but ultimately be disappointed by, and the moment I realized the crash would occur offstage was a moment of incredible frustration with the novel. What had I been reading for? Hardly any choices had been made by the characters, so all that tension, however finely crafted, felt like it had gone to waste.

Though it is beautifully-written and taut as a wire, At Hawthorn Time feels like a novel in wait for a story. Events occur and the characters react, sometimes dramatically, but the crisis action is deliberately cut out, so all of the rising action seems to be tension with nowhere to go. The characters have moments of insight and eventually intend to act, but the accident cuts off their actions, and even the epilogue refuses to reveal anything but one character’s death. This frayed ending does not negate the quality of the text of course: moment-by-moment this is an excellent read, with many passages worth returning to again and again. But if the reader hopes to find some reward from the text as a whole, they ought to prepare themselves for a deliberately frustrating end.

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