Jim Crace: Being Dead
As the title rather explicitly explains, this is a book about death. The book opens with the murder of Joseph and Celice, teachers of zoology and biology respectively. They had gone out to the local dunes to have sex. This was where they had first met and this was something of a nostalgic visit (more for him than for her) as the area was about to be developed. But, unbeknownst to them, a thief had seen them and thought they might have some things worth stealing. He followed them, found them in the dunes and killed them. Unfortunately, no-one knew they were there. Someone else stole their car. Their only daughter worked as a waitress some distance away. (Though, by chance, she quit her job at around the time her parents were killed and came down to see them. Finding the house empty, she stayed there with the taxi driver who had brought her from the station and only went looking for them (with the taxi driver) later.) They have little contact with the neighbours. His secretary and colleagues are concerned – his secretary calls him on his mobile phone but, naturally, gets no answer. Eventually the police discover the bodies but not the murderer. This is, in essence, the plot of this book, coupled with flashbacks of Joseph and Celice’s meeting, when both were students and stayed at a club house on the beach doing student zoology/biology work. However, for a variety of possible reason (for which they and the other students might be considered to be responsible), the house caught fire and one of the students died in the fire. The remains of the house are still visible some twenty-five-thirty years later.
But this book is about death and what Crace does is not simply tell the story of Joseph and Celice and their death, he injects an atmosphere of death throughout the book. The story is told in two parts which are told in successive chapters. The first is the flashback of their early life; the second concerns the period from shortly before their death to the few days after. In both parts – but particularly the most recent one – death is everywhere. The place they live is run down and death and decay are apparent. Indeed, though not a fishing town, there are people killed at sea, as Crace is keen to point out. The death by burning of their fellow student when they first met has clearly coloured their lives. But it is the description of their own deaths which defines the book. Not only are their deaths coldly brutal but Crace spares us no details, not just of their murders but of the aftermath, as crabs and other marine animals, and the sea do their work on the bodies. This could all be boring and clinical but Crace brings it off brilliantly, clearly showing that, for all our emotions and feelings, it’s all down to biology and chance. He even invents various creatures – Mondazy’s fish, which is not a fish but a local metaphor for the inevitably of death, and the sprayhopper, which Joseph has been studying. Crace is rapidly making a claim to be the best living English novelist and this book helps confirm that claim.
First published 1999 by Viking