All Among the Barley initially seems to be a simple tale of country folk going about their business in early 1930s East Anglia. There are cart-horses and scythes and hayricks and corncrakes. The early pages reminded me of Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, and Ronald Blythe’s non-fiction classic Akenfield. It all seems very idyllic. But therein lies the assumption challenged by this enjoyable novel: that traditional ways were better, and that change is regrettable.
The novel is seen through the eyes of adolescent Edie Mather, a farmer’s daughter. Edie is an awkward, intelligent girl who struggles to fit in. She is soon befriended by a dynamic, enthusiastic visitor to the village, the perfectly named Constance FitzAllen. The other villagers are initially wary of Miss FitzAllen, but she gradually wins most of them over by getting involved in all aspects of village life. Connie has a passionate interest in traditional rural practices, and wants to document as many as possible before they disappear. But, as the story progresses, we begin to realise Miss FitzAllen has more of an agenda than we first realised.
All Among the Barley contains a few shocking incidents, and an absolute bombshell of an ending that are impossible to describe without spoilers, but the overall effect is haunting. It’s a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.
Disclosure: I follow Melissa Harrison on Twitter, and consider her to be an online friend.