Friday, July 06, 2012

the last book I read

The Gift Of Stones by Jim Crace.

1327, schmirteen-twenty-seven. That's practically last week. Let's go right back to the Stone Age.

So our un-named narrator (see also exhibits A, B, C, D and E) lives in a small village by the sea, where the primary source of subsistence is the making (and selling to passing trade) of flint tools - blades, arrow-heads, axe-heads, that sort of thing, plus the odd bit of ornamental jewellery.

He doesn't do much of the old knapping himself, as only having one arm (well, one and a half, really) makes that sort of thing a bit tricky. The arm was lost after an encounter with a raiding party on one of the narrator's periodic trips out wandering about beyond the bounds of the village, something the rest of the villagers rarely do. His subsequent unfitness for flint-knapping duty allows him the time to do a bit more of this, and he soon settles into a role as the village storyteller, bringing outlandish tales of life beyond the village.

On one of his wandering trips along the coast he arrives at an area of estuarial salt-marsh where a woman, Doe, scratches out a living with her young daughter, mainly by exchanging quick knee-tremblers in the long grass with passers-by for food and other supplies. Our narrator strikes up a Platonic relationship with her and the child, and makes regular visits on his trips out from the village.

When the salt-marsh is raided by incoming settlers who want to ensure the birds which inhabit it don't steal their crops, Doe and her daughter are obliged to flee their encampment and take refuge in the narrator's village. Well, not exactly in the village, as Doe is viewed with some suspicion and is obliged to make a makeshift shelter just outside it. She soon carves out a role for herself as a collector and transporter of "raw" flint to be worked by the villagers; that's a lot of hard work, though, especially when there are easier ways of earning money and a village full of inquisitive men right on her doorstep.

The one person Doe withholds her favours from is our one-armed friend - after all his efforts rescuing and providing for her he's a bit resentful of this. After a trip down to the shore to gather some samphire in a last-ditch attempt to win her round (well, chocolates hadn't been invented yet) he arrives back at the village to discover that a raiding party on horseback has been through, and that Doe is lying dead in a patch of grass with an arrow in her back. But the arrow-head is not the usual heavy flint; this is something new - brown, shiny, smooth, cold to the touch. Yeah, welcome to the Bronze Age, peasants.

Some of the villagers - primarily the flint-sellers rather than the flint-knappers, sales skills being more easily transferable - sense which way the wind is blowing and leave immediately. The rest continue to eke out a meagre existence once trade has dwindled to just about zero before eventually deciding to set out and seek their fortune in the wider (and unfamiliar) world. Our one-armed friend leads them off down the coast, not letting on that his knowledge only extends a mile or two and then he's in the dark as much as they are.

Actually my reference to the one-armed guy as the narrator is not quite accurate - strictly the story is narrated by his (also un-named) adoptive daughter, orphaned when Doe is killed. His narration is sort of a narration-within-a-narration - any confusion here is almost certainly intentional as alongside the basic story thread this is a book about storytelling. The one-armed man tells deliberately fanciful stories to the other villagers, but assures us that what he tells us is true. Should we believe him? Even when he offers us three equally plausible explanations for Doe's death, one involving him killing her, but coyly refuses to pick one as the "real" one?

This is the second Jim Crace book in this list - this one pre-dates Arcadia by a few years (it was Crace's second published novel), and is much shorter and starker. My personal view is that it's also better, even if it seems strongly influenced by William Golding's The Inheritors in its depiction of a prehistoric people about to be engulfed by the pitiless march of progress. The Inheritors depicts the transition from Neanderthal man to Cro-Magnon man as the dominant race on the planet rather than the (much later) transition from Stone Age to Bronze Age, but it's the same sort of thing, with it only becoming clear in the last few pages how completely their world has disintegrated around them.

Anyway, it's a simple tale, powerfully told, with some metafictional stuff around the edges which you can ignore if you want to, and it's only 170 well-spaced pages, so you'll knock it off in a couple of days during Wimbledon rain breaks.

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