As a person who reads almost no fiction, I have to say I enjoyed Melissa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time very much indeed.
It's an extraordinary novel, slipping back and forth between three storylines, the backdrops to each of which are issues concerning rural life in the twenty-first century. There is Jack, an itinerant worker, regarded with suspicion by the locals. There is Jamie, a village lad, trying to find his place in an agricultural community where there are few traditional jobs. And there are Howard and Kitty, a middle-aged city couple relocated to the countryside, who are slowly coming to realise that the bucolic lifestyle isn't quite what they had imagined.
On occasion, At Hawthorn Time brought back distant memories of the couple of Thomas Hardy novels I read over three decades ago—albeit with a modern slant. But, as I read on, it became more reminiscent of Ronald Blythe's Akenfield: a classic collection of 1960s interviews with country people, describing a disappearing way of life. At Hawthorn Time describes what the countryside has become since then, and how that way of life is also beginning to disappear.
Harrison's plotting is intricate, without being convoluted. Her prose is clear, elegant and insightful. She displays a wonderful empathy for the British countryside, without ever lapsing into sentimentality. She is a genuine new talent.
At Hawthorn Time was deservedly shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2015. Whoever comes up with such shortlists surely knows far more about what constitutes a fine novel than this fiction-avoider ever could. So perhaps the greatest praise I can give to At Hawthorn Time is that, on finishing it, I immediately ordered Melissa Harrison's previous novel, Clay.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publishers. I follow Melissa Harrison on Twitter, and consider her to be an online friend.