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Harrow
Cover of Harrow
Harrow
A novel
Borrow Borrow
In her first novel since the Pulitzer Prize–nominated The Quick and the Dead, 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.
 
"She practices ... camouflage, except that instead of adapting to its environment, Williams’s imagination, by remaining true to itself, reveals new colorations in the ecology around her.” —A.O. Scott, The New York Times Book Review

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.
In her first novel since the Pulitzer Prize–nominated The Quick and the Dead, 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.
 
"She practices ... camouflage, except that instead of adapting to its environment, Williams’s imagination, by remaining true to itself, reveals new colorations in the ecology around her.” —A.O. Scott, The New York Times Book Review

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.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book 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 delivered our groceries and was Catholic as well. His mother made him go to St. Margaret’s but to my mother he railed against the constraints of the church. She found him sweet—his sometimes impotence, his muscles, his dark, dark hair, his inchoate manner of thinking . . . ​sweet.

    She enjoyed having him explain Purgatory to her.

    “They abolished it,” he said.

    “How utterly ridiculous. I just don’t think they can do that, do you?”

    “They did, but it still exists.”

    “And one should fear it but one should guard against excessive fear. One mustn’t feel overwhelmed. One must always keep in mind that justice punishes and mercy pardons.” She looked at him somberly.

    “Correct.”

    “And tell me again how long a person of faith would have to spend there, assuming that even being very good this person would still manage to commit ten wrongs a day. Which is a conservative number by any reckoning.”

    A priest had told his mother that each wrong results in one hour of Purgatory. Even if you strive tirelessly to be good you’ll be racking up faults by the thousands and will meet God dangerously in debt, the priest, a geriatric traditionalist, said. After fifty years, say, you’ve accumulated 150,000 faults and got rid of half of them through penance and good works but you’d still have 75,000 hours to pay down. And that would take seven years, ten months and fifteen days.

    “I’ve told you what my mother was told,” he said. “You’re just fucking with me.”

    “I just love the calculations. They’re so precise.”

    “They abolished it, but that doesn’t mean we’re relieved of the necessity of going there.”

    Yes, my mother found him sweet. His smooth face and square hands, the practiced roll of his walk, his threadbare jeans, the impracticality and poverty of his life. She arranged to have him babysit when she and my father went to the first club function of the new season. It amused her to hire her unlikely lover in this manner and bring him into the very heart of our home.

    From birth I had been remarkably serene and considerate, seldom crying and sleeping straight through the night, so the likelihood was small that this directionless young man would have to have any interaction with me at all. If I cried he was to call them at the club.

    The dance floor was laid out on the sand. It was Mexican Night, Fiesta Night in Olde New England. The following week it would be...
About the Author-
  • JOY WILLIAMS is the author of four previous novels—including The Quick and the Dead, a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize—and four collections of stories, as well as Ill Nature, a book of essays that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Among her many honors are the Rea Award for the Short Story and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was elected to the Academy in 2008. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, and Laramie, Wyoming.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 24, 2021
    Pulitzer finalist Williams (The Quick and the Dead) returns with a dystopian saga of environmental cataclysm that is by turns triumphant, damning, and beguiling. Sometime in the near future, Khristen is sent to a boarding school in the desert of the American West by her mother, a woman haunted by the fact that she believes Khristen briefly died as an infant and came back to life. After the school is shut down, Khristen sets off across a decimated landscape only to end up lodging at a remote hotel inhabited by elderly ecoterrorists, visionaries, and would-be assassins, led by their host, Lola. Among these residents, Khristen also meets a strange 10-year-old named Jeffrey, and together they face the environmental ruination and human depravity that mark the new world these characters all inhabit, while still remembering “the old dear stories of possibility” and noting how “no one wanted them anymore, but nothing had replaced them.” 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.

  • Kirkus

    July 1, 2021
    A memorable return for renowned storyteller Williams after a lengthy absence from long-form fiction. "Something definitely had gone wrong. Even the dead were dismayed." Something has gone wrong indeed, but in her first novel in 20 years, Williams doesn't reveal the precise contours of what that something is. There are portents at the outset as the young girl known first as Lamb, then as Khristen, contemplates a bit of family lore recounting that as a newborn she was resuscitated after having stopped breathing and, thus reborn, "was destined for something extraordinary." So Khristen's mother believes, in any event, sending her to a boarding school where, Khristen says, "my situation would be appreciated and the alarming gift I had been given properly acknowledged." Instead, the school dries up, for by Khristen's third year there are no incoming students. Why? There's no resolution in sight anywhere in Williams' deliberately paced pre-post-apocalyptic novel: All the reader knows is that something is definitely off, signaled by such moments as when a fellow student, asked to contemplate an orange while pondering creativity, protests, "I haven't tasted an orange in years." Khristen takes her place in an odd community on a "razed resort" alongside a dying lake known as Big Girl, populated by the likes of a gifted, spooky 10-year-old and a Vicodin-swilling matriarch named Lola. If nothing else, the place has a working bowling alley, one good place to await doomsday. As the clock ticks away, Williams seeds her story with allusions to Kafka, bits of Greek mythology, philosophical notes on the nature of tragedy, and gemlike description ("He was in excellent physical condition, lean with rage"), and all along with subtly sardonic humor: Williams' imagined world of the near future is so thoroughly corporatized that even the blades of wind turbines have advertisements on them, and she offers a useful phrase for obituaries to come: "What did he die of?" one character asks, meeting the reply: "Environmental issues." An enigmatic, elegant meditation on the end of civilization--if end it truly is.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from July 1, 2021
    Master short story writer Williams (The Visiting Privilege, 2015), winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, returns to the novel after a long absence to portray a bleak near-future. In this blasted America, the harrow, a farming implement used to break up the earth, has become a morbidly unifying symbol, given that harrow also means to torment or to pillage. All apply as young Khristen, homeless after the abrupt closing of her grim, bookless boarding school, journeys stoically through rack and ruin, searching for her mother. She arrives at a decrepit desert conference facility beside a dark and polluted lake called Big Girl. The cancer-afflicted proprietor, Lola, allows Khristen to stay; the only other guests are a martini-swilling woman and her son, Jeffrey, a 10-year-old jurisprudential savant. The regular residents are a band of renegade elders committed to going out with a bang in violent acts of protest against those who destroyed the planet's web of life, valuing only the human made. Nature "has been deemed sociopathic," as has anyone who tries to defend it. Balancing creeping despair with mordant humor and piquant strangeness pegged to Jeffery's fascination with a Franz Kafka story, 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.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Harrow
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Joy Williams
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