Set in the English countryside, Melissa Harrison’s “At Hawthorn Time” is a story about belonging wrapped in a pastoral cloak. The novel starts and ends with a violent car accident, but these bookends stand in direct juxtaposition to the core narrative. Where these pro- and epilogues are dynamic, cacophonous, and savage, the novel itself is understated and deliberate, filled with inner thoughts and lonesome actions. Told from various points of view, the story coheres in the overwhelming isolation of each character to whose thoughts the reader is privy. All are seeking to discover themselves and yearn for a sense of belonging – to place, community, and family.
The youngest narrator Jaime finds himself living with his parents, adrift and purposeless, with an underlying connection to the land that he can neither shake nor employ. When trying to fit in with coworkers at his menial job, Jaime discovers that “[P]erhaps belonging was as simple as deciding to.” Soon enough, though, he finds that fitting in is shallow and belonging is both deeper and more elusive.
Jack is a lone drifter, “avoiding company for the most part and living off the land when he could.” As he wanders rarely used paths and sleeps rough, he dreams only of being able to “go where I like” and “to live how I see fit.” But Jack is constantly hemmed in by society, forced to live in a time when his dream of a quiet existence is nearly unattainable.
And then there are Howard and Kitty, married 30 odd years yet nearly cohabitating strangers.
“[Kitty] thought about what Howard knew and didn’t know, and about the person he thought she was: passionless and critical; a painter of whimsy; a religious convert. She was none of things, not really. She was someone entirely different, someone he had never really seen.”
Howard and Kitty barely speak, sleeping in separate rooms and each pursuing a quiet, secluded hobby to fill their new-found retirement. Some twenty years after having had an affair, Kitty realizes that:“Even at the affair’s dizziest heights she’d known there would be a price to pay, and she was right: the bill had simply been deferred. The damage to her marriage turned out to be to its founding story: that of she and Howard and why they were together. It was the creation myth every couple produces, and she had written a new one with someone else, an act of heresy that made a lie of the first one and could never be undone.” It seems she has lost that key narrative, the story that binds her to her marriage and to her current life. Howard, similarly, is at a loss, finding himself at “an age beyond which you stopped really caring about what was good for you – especially if, as in Howard’s case, you’d fucked yourself up pretty comprehensively when you were younger and were just waiting for the damage to become apparent.” They are at odds and adrift.
In some ways, this is a book that can be judged by its cover. The cover art for Harrison’s novel expresses quiet simplicity, yet its overgrown weeds and brutal barbs are, like the story itself, rife with aching, yearning, and desolation.