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Jim Crace: Arcadia

As Joni Mitchell remarked, they paved Paradise, put up a parking lot. Arcadia was never paradise, even in its early state but it is now clearly a paved paradise where everything is clean (and expensive), where the riff-raff is kept at bay and where the middle classes, at least, can enjoy themselves. Most of the book is about the pre-paradise state of Arcadia – the fruit and vegetable market of the unnamed city of an unnamed country, which looks a lot like London and its gentrified Covent Garden.

The market is owned by Victor, now eighty years old (the book starts with his eightieth birthday celebration, high up in his glass tower, where Rook, his assistant, tries to fake a country atmosphere for the party). As his legacy, he plans to replace the old Soap Garden market with the new modern Arcadia. We then flash back to learn how Victor came to where he is. His father had died when he was a baby and his mother had brought him to the city – specifically to the Soap Garden. His mother had struggled and begged before she was killed in a fire, leaving Victor in the care of his Aunt Em (the literate among you will spot the reference to The Wizard of Oz). From a life of petty crime, Victor becomes a small-time entrepreneur and then a big-time one.

Side by side with this story is the current story. Rook is fired when Victor finds out he is on the take but not before a young country boy, Joseph, had tried – unsuccessfully – to rob him. Rook is having an affair with Anna, who works for Victor and now replaces Rook as the number two. But Rook is out for revenge and plans to use Joseph to help him. Victor however has other plans and is not going to let anyone stand in his way of his plans for the market. Everything comes to a head, of course, and poor old Rook is the one undone as rampant capitalism, on the one hand, and raw youth, on the other, triumph.

Crace tells a good story and drives home the point about the disparity between the rich and poor, even though it is all a bit predictable. What does it make it different is that this is not your conventional story telling but it is told more as a fable – the indeterminate city, the mixture of old and new, the struggle between good and evil – but it still didn’t totally convince me.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Jonathan Cape