This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.
I remember someone looking over my shoulder when I was reading Being Dead on my way home from a meeting just before it was published. Of course, I didn’t mind – I’ve done that as discreetly as I can often enough – but I imagine they may have been a little taken aback. Jim Crace’s beautifully expressed novella tells the story of two corpses on a beach while describing the process of their decay in forensic detail.
On a lovely afternoon a couple lies dead on a beach, their bodies bloody and battered. They have been married for almost thirty years and even in the throes of a violent death they appear devoted, Joseph’s hand curved around Celice’s shin. In acknowledgement of their death, Crace tells us that Being Dead is to be a ‘quivering’, a retelling of their lives in accordance with an ancient custom. So begins the narrative of Joseph and Celice’s life from their first meeting on that same beach, where they made love so many years ago, to their brutal murders. Woven into their story are descriptions of what happens to their bodies as they lie undiscovered for six days. Written in language that is graphic yet poetic, Crace’s novel makes the unbearable and the inevitable something we can look in the face.
Crace came in for a bit of a bashing for the inaccuracy of some of his descriptions, not to mention the lack of evidence for his ‘ancient custom’, for which he had some handy rebuttals, telling his critics that they were based on his observations of animal decomposition when he was out walking. Very polite. He could simply have said ‘it’s fiction’.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?
A few years ago when I was running the reviews section of a magazine which included children’s books, YA novels were awash with vampires. Then suddenly dystopian fiction seemed to be the thing – as if teens don’t have enough to angst about. It seems that publishers find bandwagons hard to get off, no matter how overcrowded they become. Two current well-trodden paths in adult fiction are post apocalypse (closely related to dystopian) and the demented protagonist.
The first has a long history – lots of it around in the Cold War years, for instance, including what’s now come to be a classic of the genre: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seemed to spark off a new post apocalyptic trend with the likes of Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse not far behind and now we have Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both longlisted for the Baileys.
Not hard to see what’s triggered either of these trends – climate change and the financial crash seem to have contributed to the first while we’re all terrified of the dementia spectre – but they feel a little over-exposed to me. I’m sure you can think of other well-worn themes, not to mention many books I’ve failed to include. Let me know what your pet likes or dislikes are.