All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison is a pastoral tale and starts off beautifully with details of the countryside, hedgerows, wheat fields and hay ricks. Even the title of the book is bucolic. Her descriptions of wildflowers just makes one want to be there. We believe that this is typical of Harrison’s style, although we haven’t read any of her earlier works, all embedded in rural settings brought to life by her writing.
In All Among the Barley, the protagonist, Edith, is a 14 year old in the early 1930s and living on her parents’ farm. She is more bookish than a person living in such a setting is expected to be. She tends to get into trouble because of her fondness for books and reading, particularly since she refuses to close a book until she has reached a sentence of seven words exactly. By the time the book starts Edith has left school and claims to have left behind her childhood infatuations and found greater loves like Percy Bysshe Shelley and John from Swallows and Amazons.
With a protagonist who starts off interesting and relatable, elements of countryside witch craft, rural unrest, pre WWII antisemitism, this could have been an engrossing book but for the fact that it has no hero. There are only a number of potential heroes who build up your expectations but fall flat in the end. All you are left with is the protagonist’s slow decline into confusion and the fall of her heroes.
Perhaps the fault lies with fact that we have read a number of YA books recently and have come to expect a character who saves the day. We understand that real life does not necessarily provide you with a suitable beginning and ending but then a book is not really real life. For a gripping story to be told within the number of pages provided, it must, we now realise, have that one character who attracts both the sympathy and the admiration of the reader. Even if the book is a tragedy, there has to be a choice of self sacrifice that must be made, like Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). Without giving too much away we feel that Harrison has just left her readers wondering what is happening and why.
To be read only for the descriptions in the first third of the book. Randomly meandering otherwise.