I read this book almost 2 months ago - shockingly lax blogging on my part to be only just getting round to it now - and my memories of it are no longer as fresh as they should be for which I can only apologise.
It's a book that deserves a bit of thought and unless I have a very clear idea of what I want to say blog posts take me a couple of hours to write at the best of times, the more I like a book the longer it takes. Not normally this long though.
I haven't read Harrison's debut 'Clay' but it seems to have been widely praised. I did pick up on the buzz about 'At Hawthorn Time' though, and was further attracted by the beautiful cover (exquisite even) as well as the title which turns out to be perfect for the book. It manages to sound slightly ominous as well as evocative.
The book opens as it closes, at the scene of a terrible car crash, we know from the first page that somebody has died, and by the end of the book know that it is either Jack the old fashioned tramp and itinerant farm labourer, Jamie, a young local boy just beginning to work himself out, or Howard, recently retired and a recent resident in the village of Lodeshill.
The body of the book quietly unravels these lives before bringing them back together for that final catastrophic meeting at dawn on a May morning. Jack is newly released from prison where he's been held for trespassing. He should be in a half way house and is terrified of being picked up by the authorities again. He can't understand the hostility his chosen way of life rouses, but it's also clear that he's not quite well, and he's so out of step with the world it's inevitable the hostility will increase.
Jamie is not long out of school, freshly embarked into the world of work and both rediscovering and losing childhood certainties. On the one hand he's rediscovering the familiar landscape around him, no longer able to take it for granted, whilst on the other family relationships are changing into more complicated patterns.
As for Howard and his wife, Kitty - the seemingly content couple who have taken early retirement are not quite as happy as they look. These are lives full of small tragedies and joys. Ordinary personal tragedies; a lost baby, a lost battle with alcoholism, failing health, failing marriages, and people getting old. Common experiences that tie us all together even when they're not talked about. Meanwhile it's all played out against the explosion of beauty and burgeoning life that makes an English May when spring bursts into extravagant leaf and blossom. Some things will always go on regardless, and the hawthorn is quite indifferent to human drama.
It is a beautiful book, turned into something special by the descriptions of early summer in a generally quite ordinary place. Each chapter is headed with a list; notes of flowers, the weather, trees budding. Every review I've read has assumed these are Jack's notes of what he sees around him, and they might well be, but I thought of them as something independent - the landscape itself another protagonist.