Reading Through the Awards: Harrow by Joy Williams

November 18, 2021

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Joy Williams’s Harrow, winner of the 2021 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “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”?”

Joy Williams’s Harrow is a bleak, quiet, and thoughtful novel. It is broken up into three parts which, for the most part, center on a young girl named Khristen whose life just so happens to take place in America following an ecological apocalypse. What’s particular about Harrow as dystopian fiction is Williams’s presentation. She does not front-load the story with exposition about what’s happened and currently happening with the world. She also rarely, if ever, goes into Khristen’s thoughts which gives Harrow’s narration a distant and intentionally vague quality. The result is a subtle, underlying suspense when things that might otherwise be considered abnormal and tragic are taken in stride. For example, early on in the story, Khristen enrolls in a reclusive boarding school. While naturally, curriculum can differ between private and public schools, this boarding school espouses Friedrich Nietzsche’s principals as part of its induction ceremony and seems to regularly posit and expect philosophical thought from its students—some of who claim themselves as eco-critics, forward thinkers, and the like, who also seem to have not tasted an orange in years. In other words, the novel as readers recontextualizes what normal attitudes would be in a bleak world and suspense is created when all is not as it seems.

That said, when I write that the characters take the dystopian world in stride, this is Williams’s characterization and layering at play. Because underneath the surface, her characters struggle with the oppressive bleakness that’s got themselves and everyone detached. They are often pursuing one line of faith and philosophy after the other in the hopes of attributing meaning to their lives. In addition, the dialog of Harrow is strong and strongest when the characters try to rationalize themselves to Khristen. Khristen herself is a mostly quiet listener which gives these characters room to explore their beliefs that would otherwise be put down by those jaded in a jaded world. Khristen has also been noted by her classmate to lack “self-love” and “self-preservation” which is an interesting parallel considering Harrow critiques humanity for its short-term outlook and treatment of Earth. Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to Khristen being as distant and impressionable as she is. I often felt I needed some grounding, a compass so to speak, to navigate the dynamic and lengthy scenes where multiple speakers and philosophies were being explored. Not many speech and action tags punctuate conversation and some sentences come across as more cryptic than necessary. The plot itself does not always come across as sequential when at parts it actually is. All that aside, Harrow, when it is not too cryptic and disorientating, presents a thought-provoking world that presents memorable intrigue, mood, and exploration of thought.

Angelica Colot

Joy Williams’s Harrow offers a glimpse of a post-apocalypse that in a perfect world would have been filed under science fiction. Unfortunately, Harrow reads much more like a premonition. Like a warning. Williams only gives us hints, but we know who did it, and why. We all did, and it is because we are shortsighted. Humans are the only animals with the desire, or ability, to make telephones and blue jeans and all the different cultivars of kale, but we are still animals, and animals do not care about the future, not when there is money to be made and leisure to be enjoyed now. If only this book had been more straightforward. As it is, the messages are hidden in nearly impenetrable twists and turns of conversation and thought. It is difficult to pin down. It reads like a dream, with a narrative that is only accessible in the macro, where nearly every page feels disjointed from the rest, despite being a continuation.

Ultimately this does a disservice to the very important “moral” of the story. We readers may have a marginal chance of avoiding our demise, but in Harrow, it’s too late: the only things growing fatter are the cockroaches. The tiger and the dolphin have gone the way of the dodo and the dragon. The rich world we readers live in is, for the people in Harrow, dead, extinct, so removed as to be mythic. And yet, despite this ecological apocalypse, many of Harrow’s characters remain optimistic, often morbidly so. They refuse to see disaster for what it is, instead only comparing it to a year before, ten years before, and in that shortsighted light, nothing really seems so bad. They descended into their apocalypse like frogs in a boiling pot. But there is no chef performing this act of cruelty. We frogs do it to ourselves. Happily.

Taylor Seyfert

Harrow by Joy Williams gives readers a vague idea of what an apocalypse could look like in our future. The in-depth details of the apocalypse are kept from the reader, but Williams is still able to create a destitute and chaotic setting with the details surrounding her characters. Students gripe with each other over the last time they had oranges, elderly people offer their lives to get revenge on environmentally harmful companies and people, and once glorious lakes are dried to dust. Without having to know all the complete details of what exactly caused the Earth’s devastation, Williams’ calculated descriptions and dialogue tell the reader all that they need to know: the humans have finally succeeded in ruining the planet. The intentional lack of world building allows the readers to focus on the characters and their mission to save the world in whatever ways they still can.

Most impressing is how characters throughout the novel never lose their humanity. When gelatinous globs fall from the sky and cause itchiness, there is still a character out in the midst of it trying to recreate the “…simple pleasure of feeling falling rain,” and holding back tears when it’s not the same. The main character, Khristen, after years of her mother imposing purpose and greatness upon her, still searches for her place in the world, despite it all crumbling around her. Williams writes these moments with intelligence and wit, and it creates a brilliant sense of normalcy that the apocalypse seems like just another thing humans have to deal with.

Melanie Spicer

Curated by Brandon Williams


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