Friday, May 18, 2012

An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.

A sign from somebody, or something. Franklin Wharf, Hobart waterfront. May 2012.

Being Dead by Jim Crace really is unlike any book I have read before. It begins with a straightforward, albeit shocking, image; the bodies of a middle-aged couple lying in the dunes of the seacoast where they met as students. A frenzied stranger has battered them to death them with a chunk of granite for no reason other than the few valuables they have with them. Yet this is no murder mystery. Less about murder and more about death, to be more precise.

The reader is than taken on a [very] graphic account of what happens as their corpses lie undiscovered and rotting for a week. We learn of the effects of putrefaction, the role of crabs, flies, and gulls in processing decaying organic matter. The narrative then abruptly shifts backward to the [again, incredibly graphic] moment of their deaths. It’s fair to say that the opening third of the book is not for the faint hearted.

The narrative then alternates between the few hours shared between the couple preceding the murder; thirty years earlier and the events of their meeting and getting together; a continuing account of their decaying bodies; and events in the life of their only daughter in the week following their deaths. Each lens is an intimate view of life (and death). The graphic descriptions suddenly feel more appropriate and poignant, and less shocking. Crace has done exceptionally well to achieve this feat.

The key message seems to me to be that death is a natural part of life. Whether we are aware of it or not, it simply is. It might seem obvious or trite a concept, but it’s Crace avoids this with his brutally honest account of the lives and deaths of two people, and the immediate effect on their distant and remote daughter.

I really like this book, and respect its achievement. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, but they are all fundamentally human. There is something made more touching of their dysfunctional relationships that is highlighted by the central theme of death (and the contrasting challenge of life). It’s not for everyone (particularly the squeamish), but if you’re up for a challenge, you could do much worse than read this book.

Highly recommended.


USelaine said...

I tried to read Quarantine by Jim Crace years ago (about cohorts of Jesus on meditative retreat in desert caves), but it started out with the beating of a donkey rather more vividly than I cared to endure, so stopped.

Kris said...

USelaine, you ARE still on the blogosphere! Good to see you again. He does get rather explicit in his descriptions, doesn't he.

I initially thought that the vivid murder scene was somewhat over the top, but oddly enough, I think that eventually helped in the central message of this novel and made their lives (rather than the nature of the deaths) all the more poignant. It isn't for everybody though.