A remote English village wakes on the morning after harvest, looking forward to a hard-earned day of rest and feasting at the landowner's table. But two conspicuous columns of smoke mar the sky, raising alarm and suspicion in the place of peaceable satisfaction.
Overnight, Master Kent's stables and his dovecote have burned. Walter Thirsk, a relative outsider who left his position as manservant in the manor house to marry a village woman, casts his eye on three local boys and blames their careless tomfoolery.
But the second smoke column comes from the edge of the village land, sent up by newcomers to announce their presence. Rather than search among themselves for a culprit on whom to blame the stable fire, the villagers close ranks against the strangers. Two men and a woman are apprehended, their heads are shaved to mark their criminality, and the men are thrown in the stocks for a week.
The villagers will come to regret their silence in the face of such hasty judgment. Meanwhile, another newcomer has been recently spotted in the village sporting the finer clothes and fashionable beard of a townsman. Mr. Quill, as the villagers name him, observes them closely and takes careful notes about their land, apparently at Master Kent's behest. It is his presence more than any other that will threaten the village's entire way of life.
In effortless and tender prose, Jim Crace details the unravelling of a pastoral idyll in the face of economic progress. His tale is timeless and unsettling, framed by a beautifully evoked world you will remember long after you finish reading.