Sunday, December 09, 2007

the last book I read

Arcadia by Jim Crace.

Aha! You see the fiendish genius of my master plan? See how I snap my fingers and the world rearranges itself imperceptibly (to you, anyway) to suit my mysterious purpose. No sooner do I casually mention Jim Crace's brilliant novel Quarantine in a blog post than Joan Bakewell invokes it and its author towards the end of a slightly rambling piece for The Independent four days later. Only then, a couple of weeks later, do I reveal that I've been reading another book by the same author all along! See as I cackle maniacally to myself, stroking a white cat while bejewelled flunkeys hasten to do my nefarious bidding.

Enough of this. Victor is a self-made millionaire celebrating his 80th birthday. His fortune derives from running the Soap Market, the central market area in an un-named British city (it's not London as this is mentioned elsewhere; the obvious assumption to make is that it's Crace's home city, Birmingham) at an unspecified date (most reviews say "the near future", but it could equally be a slightly twisted parallel present - it doesn't really matter). Victor decides that he wants to leave a more permanent mark on the world after he dies, and so instigates the construction of a new covered market, Arcadia, on the site of the old Soap Market. Meanwhile various other lives play out in the shadow of these events: Victor's devious ex-right hand man Rook, homeless chancer and petty criminal Joseph, Rook's occasional lover Anna, and the various traders and stallholders who populate the market.

The market setting gives Crace free rein to indulge one of his main passions: writing about food. So there's much description of "the waxen probity of lettuces", "the seductive, bitter alchemy of quinces", that sort of thing. There's even more of it in his later book The Devil's Larder, and he even manages to sneak some juicy prose about eating dates into the blasted desert setting of Quarantine.

Glorious prose aside, what's less clear is what the novel is actually about. It's something like: the desire to leave a mark after one's death, the conflict between the city and the countryside and the city-dweller's naive romantic yearnings for the supposed simplicity and purity of rural life, the impossibility of corralling and regulating human endeavour and enterprise, or any combination of the above.

It's good. But it's not as good as Quarantine or Being Dead. Start with one of those.

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