Flynn Berry, “Under the Harrow”

Under the HarrowUnder the Harrow rides on its writing—a deep, detailed close-in point of view that signals itself from the opening paragraph. Flynn Berry’s style is staccato. Six words in the first sentence, eight in the second, eleven in the third.

“A woman is missing in the East Riding. She vanished from Hedon, near where we grew up. When Rachel learns of the disappearance, she will think it’s him.”

I loved the style and, therefore, dug Under the Harrow. What a great title, lifted from a C.S. Lewis quote, Come, what do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape.

I had to look up ‘harrow.’  I’m no farmer. It’s an agricultural implement with spikes, tines or discs that is dragged across soil say, by a tractor, to break it up. You’ve seen harrows. And you know the word ‘harrowing.’

On the first page of Berry’s brisk novel, we meet Nora. She tells us she’s an assistant to a landscaper so she perhaps knows a thing or two about dirt and tilling soil. To get where this story takes Nora, in fact, she is going to have to dig very deep indeed.

To me, Flynn Berry’s style is seductive. It’s her eye. For this story to work, we have to be immersed completely in Nora’s dense worldview. Nora has the landscaping gig but she is also a writer; she’s looking forward to an artist’s residency in France. One assumes her writing is akin to how she takes in the world—with efficient declarations about what she sees. On page two, Nora is heading from London to the East Riding, to the “old farmhouse on a shallow hill” where her sister, Rachel, lives alone.

“On the train, I press my head against the seat and watch the winter fields pass by the windows. My carriage is empty except for a few commuters who have left work early for the weekend. The sky is gray with a ribbon of purple at the horizon. It’s cold here, outside the city. You can see it on the faces of people waiting at the local stations. A thin stream of air whistles through a crack at the bottom of the pane. The train is a lighted capsule traveling through a charcoal landscape.”

A few pages later, however, Nora finds Rachel—and Rachel’s dog—dead inside the farmhouse. It’s a grizzly scene; the dog hanged on his own lead from the banister. Nora moves north from London to help investigate. She moves to the only inn in town, a place called The Hunters. Nora slowly comes to grips with the events and the scenes she has witnessed. The tone is grim. Nora struggles to regain a foothold on reality.

Berry smoothly shows us the bond between Nora and Rachel—and why. Nora has ample reason to regret a decision she made that had a tremendous impact on Rachel’s life. Someone attacked Rachel and the two sisters spent time and energy trying to find her assailant. Is Rachel’s murderer the same person who attacked her? Nora interacts with the police, identifies what seem to be some worthy clues. She consumes herself with a neighbor who was the last person to see Rachel alive. There are complications with Rachel’s work life and social life and their father, too. Nora’s affection and uber-close relationship with Rachel is palpable. The scene where she scatters Rachel’s ashes reminds us, as Ross Macdonald told us, that the corpse is the main character in any good murder mystery.

There’s really no good way to comment on the ending of Under the Harrow except you realize how deftly Berry has kept our feet on the ground with her cool, sparkling prose.

(Under the Harrow won the Edgar Award in 2017 for Best First Novel. Flynn Berry’s website is here.)