September 2021


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Joy Williams’ slim, wry Harrow is a wonderfully vexing novel whose symbols open up to the real world.
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The title of Pulitzer Prize finalist Joy Williams’ slim, wry novel Harrow, her first in 20 years, resonates through several connotations: to pillage, to plunder, to cultivate with a harrow, to torment, to vex. Indeed, this is a wonderfully vexing novel, one whose symbols open up to the real world.

Khristen is a teenager whose life has been shaped by a story told by her mother about when infant Khristen died and came back to life, and by her subsequent presumed specialness. The world that surrounds Khristen is in ruins, marred by environmental collapse. Her mother disappears, and her boarding school for gifted teens shutters. Little makes sense to her as she tries to figure out what survival means.

As we follow Khristen on her journey, we see the decimated landscape, hear harrowing conversations and observe a world that seems past redemption. Yet as Khristen arrives at a resort located near an odoriferous, puzzling lake known as Big Girl, we see her desire—and that of her friend Jeffrey—to save this place, no matter how challenging and gruesome it may be. Humans have destroyed the land, and yet in this novel, they can’t quite let it go. 

Khristen proves a compelling, ineffable character who escapes categorization. She’s worth rooting for and deserving of our curiosity as we try to understand her. Precise and distanced, beautifully rendered and sparse, Williams’ prose is fascinating, her voice captivating. The sentences are at once clear and mysterious. The descriptions of this world, one that is not quite ours but close, are striking. The dialogue is haunting and engaging.

Harrow creeps into your world. I finished the novel in two sittings and spent days trying to make sense of all that it offers, noticing water and land through a different lens, imagining the possibilities when we believe in the greatness that others see in us, and what happens when we choose not to.

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