Though it unfolds in an unnamed place ("The Village," surrounded by "The Land") in an unspecified pre-Industrial time, "Harvest" is very much about definition.

In language beautiful and painstakingly precise, Jim Crace circumscribes the story as neatly as a fairy tale: "What starts with fire will end with fire," as the narrator, Walter Thirsk, observes.

And, as with so many fairy tales, what looks at first like a morality play turns out to be something far less satisfying to our sense of order. ("What starts with fire will end with ash," Walter also says.)

Intoxicated on "fairy caps," three local young knuckleheads set fire to the master's dovecote. At the same time, three outsiders throw up a makeshift shack on the outskirts and, following custom, start a fire, thus claiming a place.

And the latter three, naturally suspect, take the blame for the crime of the village boys — who keep mum while very rough "justice" is meted out to the outsiders.

So the horrible cycle begins, one crime summoning another — until the real thrust of the narrative emerges.

A world so carefully marked between out and in, us and them — where each spring "we bump our children's heads against the boundary stones, so that they'll not forget where they and all of us belong" — is in the process of being turned inside out.

The whole terrible story, entirely absorbing, has been a subplot in the larger narrative of progress, as town, in the person of a new master, encroaches on village, and the old deep ways of farming are displaced by sheep.

All told and slowly understood by Walter, himself an outsider up to 10 or so years ago (a blink of the eye in this world), the story holds us in suspense with its minute and exquisite observation of every particular until, like the unsuspecting villagers, we are let go, left to contemplate "wherever is awaiting us."

Ellen Akins is a writer in northern Wisconsin.She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.