A novel about a man who wakes up one day in 1919 and finds he can’t remember anything about the last three years of his life. 1941.
Earlier this year, I read The Feast and was totally bowled over. I declared it the best book I’ve ever read, and I still stick by that. What most impressed me about The Feast was how craftily it played with the storytelling timeline. To me, whenever a story breaks free of normal chronology and then manages to piece everything together by the ending, it’s a truly marvelous thing to witness. Some readers might find the jumble confusing, but what can I say? I love a good jigsaw puzzle.
Random Harvest is constructed a little differently than The Feast, but it comes together with equal perfection, and the effect is just as breathtaking. Our narrator is a young Englishman who’s traveling on a train on Armistice Day, sometime in the mid 1930s. Across from him in the train is a slightly older man, a businessman and politician. The two men get to talking, with that open abandon people sometimes feel on transportation, when they’re pretty sure they’re confiding in someone they’ll never see again.
As it turns out, though, the two men are actually attending the same Cambridge function the next night. This time when they meet, they have to properly introduce themselves. A late-night conversation ensues (there are a lot of them in this book), and again the men hit it off. This time, our narrator learns about a curious aspect of his new friend Charles’s life…
Sometime in 1917, Charles was seriously injured in the trenches. He had his leg shattered, and received a strong blow to the head. And that’s all he remembers. The next thing he knows, he’s waking up on a park seat in Liverpool on December 27, 1919. He has no idea how he got there, or what he’s done in the nearly three years since he left the trenches. It’s a total mystery. The only thing he can think to do is go home. And so he does.
When he arrives at his family’s estate, he finds a shocked household, as everyone’s assumed he was dead all these years (and now his siblings are suspicious about his sudden return). His father, moreover, a steelworks magnate and member of Parliament, is on his deathbed, and Charles is obviously no longer in the will.
Then we do some more jumping around in the chronology. Back to the present day: our narrator becomes Charles’s new secretary, which further deepens the relationship between the two men. (The narrator, actually, has virtually no backstory, and in fact isn’t a character so much as he is the vehicle for Charles’s story.) More late-night conversations ensue, and Charles reveals more of his history.
With his father now dead, and an older brother the new manager of the family business, Charles sets off on his own and goes to Cambridge, where he would have attended school if it hadn’t been for the war. His promising academic career, however, is again cut short, this time by a crisis in the family business. Charles reluctantly takes the reigns and saves the day. He tells himself he’ll just do this until the business is back on its feet again—he doesn’t see himself as a businessman, though he’s obviously good at what he’s doing. In time he becomes engaged to a younger woman.
But we know from the narrator’s descriptions of Charles’s wife that she is not the young woman he was once engaged to. Charles’s wife is described as sort of cold, an efficient hostess for all the parties and luncheons a rising politician must host. But we don’t see much of an emotional connection between Charles and his wife. We’re even a little suspicious of her. There’s also a family butler who is treated like a member of the family, and manages their lives so efficiently as to be almost invisible—-might he be holding back some information, perhaps in conspiracy with Charles’s wife?
So behind the impressive facade of Charles’s present-day (mid 1930s) life, there are several unsolved mysteries. The greatest mystery of all, of course, and the one that continuously weighs on Charles’s mind, is what happened in those “missing” three years of his life?
Again I must compliment the author James Hilton, this time for his effective use of this mystery as a plot device. Within the opening pages of the book, we learn about these missing years. We’re curious, though, whether this random man on a train will turn out to be the star of the story, or maybe the narrator himself will claim the limelight (as is usual in a first-person narrative)? After a few chapters we see that the story is actually about Charles—-and it’s a good thing, too, because by this time we’ve grown very fond of him, and we too are dying to know about those forgotten years.
It’s also an interesting storytelling technique that as the “present day” (1930s) moves forward, the mounting drama of Charles’s story is echoed by the rising tensions in Europe, as everyone looks toward that strange man Hitler in Germany, speculating as to whether he will really bring war to the continent once again. The ’20s and ’30s was also a time of huge social and economic changes, and Charles, at the center of it all as a politician and king of industry, offers some very insightful observations.
I was particularly struck by this discussion of Charles’s role in the world, as a reluctant employer of thousands of people. Charles begins:
“But there is a responsibility, no use denying it, in owning a three-thousand-family business. If I can contrive a little security for those people—-“
“But there isn’t any security…It’s an illusion put up by banks and insurance companies and lawyers and building societies and everybody who goes without what he wants today because he thinks he’ll enjoy it more later on. Supposing some day we find out there isn’t any ‘later on’?”
“Then, my dear, will come Wal’s revolution.”
“And we shall all make a grab for what we can get?”
“Provided there is anything to get by then. If the whole thing’s an illusion, then the rewards may fade equally.”
“Then you try to comfort those three thousand families by encouraging them to believe in a future that doesn’t exist?”
“They don’t believe in it. Every street-corner speaker warns them not to at the top of his voice. What I do comfort them with, since you put it that way, is enough of a regular wage to buy food and pay their rent and smoke cigarettes and go to the local cinema. That keeps them satisfied to go on waiting.”
“For the big grab?”
“Or for the discovery that there isn’t anything left to grab.”
It’s a truly great book, and one heck of a powerful story. (The ending won’t disappoint!) Random Harvest was a bestseller in 1941, though by then Hilton’s reputation was already well-established by Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, two of his better-known, earlier works. No surprise, then that Random Harvest was made into a movie in 1942. I watched it earlier today, actually, and it’s a surprisingly satisfying book-to-movie adaptations. Yeah, sure, it’s a totally abridged version of the book, as almost all movie adaptations are, and some of my favorite scenes didn’t make the cut. But still, I feel it does justice to the mood and meaning of the book, and that’s certainly something.
The final piece in the story’s puzzle doesn’t have quite as much impact in the movie as in the book, though, so I definitely recommend the book over the movie. Random Harvest is, so to speak, living proof: there are some things you can do in a book that you just can’t do on a screen. And that, my friends, is a wonderful thing.