A worrying issue of any life-long relationship is that, after you’ve shared most of your lives together working and raising a family, there’s the risk that you could reach retirement and find yourself living with someone you can no longer connect with. There might have been a slow breakdown in the couple’s emotional or sexual connection. Silence about certain issues can heavily hang between the pair for so long that it turns into an insurmountable wall. The question of whether to stay together or go your separate ways at this late time in life must be a terrifying one. One of the most striking things about Melissa Harrison’s novel “At Hawthorn Time” is how well she writes about a husband and wife who reaches this uncertain state of being and the complex way they manage their existence together.
After running a successful business in London and raising two children, Kitty and Howard Talling move to the country. Kitty pursues her passion of landscape painting and Howard restores vintage wireless radios. Even though they live in relative harmony, they don’t share a bed at night and carefully avoid talking about certain topics. Their grown children will soon be visiting them for the first time, but the country house they’ve established for their twilight years isn’t the sort of home they imagined it would be. At one point Kitty finds “It was all so painful, so very painful, she thought: the gap between how things were and how they should be. And impossible to bridge.” It’s very moving how Harrison develops the story of this couple’s relationship showing the cracks in their marriage and intense dilemma of their situation.
However, this novel also centres on two other characters. Jack is a man who feels very connected with nature and the ancient paths through the countryside which have become overgrown. After being arrested for vagrancy, he drifts from village to village avoiding contact with people as much as possible, living off the land and doing odd farming jobs. There is also a nineteen year old boy named Jamie who comes from a farming family, but is trying to forge a path in life separate from his rural roots and come to terms with a neighbour's tragedy. The stories of Howard, Kitty, Jack and James come together in a horrendous accident that's described at the beginning of the book.
One of the most prominent features of this novel are the descriptions of nature and the seasons which head every chapter. The countryside and its elements play a prominent role. Harrison describes the struggle of farm life where profits are dwindling. She's also excellent at capturing the way working on the land becomes a part of a person's physical being: “with scything: once you had learned it your body would always know the motion.” In a delicately moving way the depictions of the land become layered with time and human experience to show how we are both a part of and separate from it. This is a beautifully written and composed novel whose meaning still feels elusive to me though it is evident that there is a lot to admire. I now really want to read other reviews and reactions to it to get a feel for connections I might have missed. If you've read this novel, I'd love to know your thoughts on it.