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Reviews of Harrow by Joy Williams

Harrow

A novel

by Joy Williams

Harrow by Joy Williams X
Harrow by Joy Williams
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Sep 2021, 224 pages

    Paperback:
    Jul 2022, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
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About this Book

Book Summary

In her first novel since The Quick and the Dead (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), the legendary writer takes us into an uncertain landscape after an environmental apocalypse, a world in which only the man-made has value, but some still wish to salvage the authentic.

Khristen is a teenager who, her mother believes, was marked by greatness as a baby when she died for a moment and then came back to life. After Khristen's failing boarding school for gifted teens closes its doors, and she finds that her mother has disappeared, she ranges across the dead landscape and washes up at a "resort" on the shores of a mysterious, putrid lake the elderly residents there call "Big Girl."

In a rotting honeycomb of rooms, these old ones plot actions to punish corporations and people they consider culpable in the destruction of the final scraps of nature's beauty. What will Khristen and Jeffrey, the precocious ten-year-old boy she meets there, learn from this "gabby seditious lot, in the worst of health but with kamikaze hearts, an army of the aged and ill, determined to refresh, through crackpot violence, a plundered earth"?

Rivetingly strange and beautiful, and delivered with Williams's searing, deadpan wit, Harrow is their intertwined tale of paradise lost and of their reasons—against all reasonableness—to try and recover something of it.

Book One

If they do this when the wood is green,
What will happen when the wood is dry?
—Luke 23:31

My mother and father named me Lamb. My mother believed that I had died as an infant but had then come back to the life we shared. As I grew, her intention and need was to put me in touch with where I had been when I was dead, what I remembered of it and what I had learned. She believed I was destined for something extraordinary.

My father did not believe I had ever been dead. Nor did any of the doctors they consulted.

A young man was watching me the night I was said to have died. He did not harm me was the truth of it. It was just a story that was to grow up around us both, causing us both to be outcasts.

My mother and father were at a dance, the first dance of the summer.

My mother lacked good judgment in many things. She would be the first to admit it. She had taken up with this young man who was still a teenager a little more than a month after I was born. He was a town boy, he ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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Harrow is a difficult book in many ways. There's nothing easy about reading it, which I happen to like. The book replicates the post-apocalyptic haze it depicts: events are vague and fleeting, people come and go with little to introduce or see them off, and even the main character isn't always central. And yet, I'm utterly haunted by it, likely because there's so much left unknown. Furthermore, as someone who copes with difficulty by using dark humor, I appreciate how nothing is sacred in the author's jokes. A few times, I cackled so hard I dropped the book...continued

Full Review (831 words)

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(Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin).

Media Reviews

The New Yorker
Williams's tone achiev[es] a new, perfectly hostile register...[Her] vision of an annihilated earth seems to have flown from the brain of Francisco Goya...As the novel continues, it plumbs ever-deeper zones of dystopian weirdness...She practices a kind of hallucinogenic realism, which takes at face value the psychological flights of characters deranged by loss...Williams has long written to the side of conventional English, pursuing a form that feels more commensurate with actual experience—with the terror, comedy, and mystery of moving through the world.

Washington Post
Williams's last full-length work, The Quick and the Dead, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. If you've read any of her other books, you'll know their experimental nature sparks electricity rather than burning readers out, and that's true in this new, urgent novel as well. Between references to important and sometimes arcane classical literature and deliberately obscure vocabulary (gangrel, yaws, trephined, erlking, carling, to name just a few), Harrow insists that readers pay attention to the decline of the natural world.

New York Times
As Williams's books go, this isn't a very good one. Her wit misfires more than usual; the ecological themes are overly familiar; there are no real characters to hang onto, and very little plot, not that anyone comes to Williams for scenario.

Booklist (starred review)
Balancing creeping despair with mordant humor and piquant strangeness...Williams asks if hope and compassion, reason and responsibility can survive once the wonders of wild and flourishing nature have been utterly destroyed. Brilliantly and exquisitely shrewd and unnerving.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Williams seeds her story with allusions to Kafka, bits of Greek mythology, philosophical notes on the nature of tragedy, and gemlike description...An enigmatic, elegant meditation on the end of civilization—if end it truly is.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Pulitzer finalist Williams returns with a dystopian saga of environmental cataclysm that is by turns triumphant, damning, and beguiling...Rollicking with language that is at once biblical and casual, this builds like a sermon to a fever pitch. Williams's well-known themes of social decline and children in danger are polished to a gorgeous luster in this prescient page-turner. The result serves as both an indictment of current culture and a blazing escape from it.

Reader Reviews

Pat Kaczmarek

A Portrait of a Shocking Future
Climate change will destroy all that we love. Harrow is a vision of the future that our children and grandchildren will face. Every American should read this book.

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Beyond the Book

Franz Kafka and "The Hunter Gracchus"

Black and white photo of Franz Kafka wearing a suitIn Joy Williams' Harrow, two characters discuss Franz Kafka's "The Hunter Gracchus," a short story written in 1917 and published posthumously in 1931, along with a document that was marked as a fragment, which appears to be an addendum to the story.

Franz Kafka was born into a well-to-do Jewish family on July 3, 1883 in Prague. He had considerable conflict with his father growing up and throughout his life and wrote extensively about his father's "intellectual domination," temper, and habit of crushing all enthusiasm out of his son. Kafka went on to study law at the University of Prague and worked as a law clerk for a year. Whatever he did, life with his father was simply too oppressive.

Kafka wanted to move to Berlin, where his fianc...

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Read-Alikes

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