Penzler Pick, June 2000:
It begins with a murder. Celice and Joseph, in their mid-50s and married for more than 30 years, are returning to the seacoast where they met as students. They are reliving their first amorous encounter in the sand dunes when they are set upon by the murderer who beats them to death with a rock and steals their watches, their jewelry, and even their meager lunch. From that moment forward, this remarkably written book by Jim Crace becomes less about murder and more about death. Alternating chapters move back in time from the murder in hourly and two-hourly increments. As the narrative moves backward, we see Celice and Joseph make the small decisions about their day that will lead them inexorably towards their own deaths. Eventually we learn about their first meeting, and that this is not the first time tragedy has struck them in this idyllic setting.
In other chapters the narrative moves forward. Celice and Joseph are on vacation and nobody misses them until they do not return. Thus, it is six days before their bodies are found. Crace describes in minute detail their gradual return to the land with the help of crabs, birds, and the numerous insects that attack the body and gently and not so gently prepare it for the dust-to-dust phase of death. Celice and Joseph would have been delighted with the description: she was a zoologist and he was an oceanographer, and they spent their lives with their eyes to the microscope, observing the phenomena of life and death. Some readers might find this gruesome, but the facts of death are told in such glorious prose that these descriptions in no way detract from the enjoyment of the book.
After her parents do not return home, their daughter, Syl, must search the morgues and follow up John and Jane Doe reports until she is finally asked to make an identification of the remains in the dunes. We then discover that the reader has had a more intimate relationship with them in death than Syl ever had with them in life. This small gem of a book, not really a mystery in the usual sense, will stay with you long after you finish. --Otto Penzler
From Publishers Weekly
Crace is a brilliant British writer whose novels are always varied in historical setting, voice, theme and writing style, and are surprising in content. Those very factors may have contributed to his failure to establish a literary identity and to attain his deserved audience here. This latest, sixth effort (after Quarantine), a stunning look at two people at the moment of their deaths, is the riskiest of his works, the most mesmerizing and the most deeply felt. Joseph and Celice, middle-aged doctors of zoology married to each other for almost 30 years, revisit the seaside where they first met and made love "in the singing salt dunes of Baritone Bay." They are surprised on the dunes, murdered and robbed, and their bodies lie undiscovered for days. In alternating chapters of chronological counterpoint, Crace traces their last day, working backwards from the moment of their murders to their awakening that morning, innocent of what is to come. At the same time, he recreates the day they were introduced, in the 1970s, when they were researching their doctoral dissertations. By the time these chronological vignettes converge, Crace has created two distinctive personalities who sustain a marriage and careers and parent a rebellious, nihilistic daughter, Syl. His finesse in drawing character is matched by the depth of his knowledge and imagination, and the honesty of his bleak vision. Some readers may be horrified by the brutal imagery ("Her scalp hung open like a fish's mouth. The white roots at her crown were stoplight red") or the matter-of-fact details of the body's putrefaction: the first predators "in the wet and ragged centres of their wounds" are a beetle, swag flies, crabs and a gull, and their activities in each corpse are described with detached scientific accuracy. The profession of the deceased, of course, adds irony to the situation. Celice taught that the natural sciences are the study of violence and death, while Joseph maintained that "humankind is only marginal. We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology." In juxtaposing the remorselessness of nature against the hopes, desires and conflicted emotions of individuals, Crace gracefully integrates the facts and myths about the end of human life, and its transcendence (in Syl's epiphanic vision), into a narrative of dazzling virtuosity. (Apr.)
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