73 of 79 people found the following review helpful
The Neverending Days of Being Dead,
By A Customer
This review is from: Being Dead: A Novel (Hardcover)Jim Crace is an extravagantly gifted writer and Being Dead is a rare interweaving of writerly panache and common human emotion; an extravagantly beautiful book about a subject that some find horrifying.
As the novel opens, two middle-aged zoologists, Jospeh and Celice, in a nostalgic mood, return to the very strip of beach where they first made love more than thirty years before. Nostalgia, though, at least in Being Dead, comes with a very high price. It gives nothing of the plot away to say that this couple are brutally and senselessly murdered on this strip of beach by a psychopathic thief. Their deaths come at the beginning of the book and are the very incident upon which all others turn.
As Jospeh's and Celice's half-naked bodies lie undiscovered in the dunes for days, Crace describes the process of their corruption and dissolution and, in alternating chapters, the story of how they met, fell in love and first made love on that morning now so long ago. Later chapters introduce one further character: the couple's daughter, Syl, a lost child in more ways than one. The death of Joseph and Celice, in some ways, marks the beginning of Syl's life.
The book seems to be reviving the age-old practice of "quivering" the dead in which guests stand around the dead one's home and bed, making strange noises and shaking "quiver sticks" until the entire house rattles "as if a thousand crows were pecking at the roof." As they "quivered," the guests would reminisce about the dead until, "Their memories, exposed to the backward-running time of quiverings in which regrets became prospects, resentments became love, experience became hope, would up-end the hour-glass of Celice and Jospeh's life together and let the sands reverse." Quivering is supposed to release any evil spirits that may be inhabiting the body and help to speed the soul on its journey toward heaven.
"Quivering," however believable it seems to be, and it does seem to be believable, is Crace's invention. Yet we believe in it, just as we believe in the characters of Joseph and Celice. Crace's prose is that good; he is a master at hypnotic word-spinning.
In writing about death, Crace has managed to write a book about life and about the celebration of life as well as about chance and loss and struggle and hope and love. Jospeh and Celice were people who knew the details of the physical aspects of death and who now must suffer them in the most intimate manner possible.
There is more in this book than death though, and the careful reader will not miss it. Just before dying, Joseph manages to reach out and grasp his wife's leg. This final gesture of love outlives them both, surviving rain, insects, and seagulls, and is destroyed only when the police intervene. This intervention is one of the saddest incidents in the book.
Some readers will learn more than they ever wanted to about the biological ravages of being beaten to death. But even the highly detailed descriptions of the couple's decomposition take on a poetic and moving quality: "The bodies were discovered straight away. A beetle first. Claudatus maximi. A male. Then the raiding parties arrived, drawn by the summons of fresh wounds and the smell of urine: swag flies and crabs, which normally would have to make do with rat dung and the carcasses of fish for their carrion. Then a gull. No one, except the newspapers, could say that 'There was only Death amongst the dunes, that summer's afternoon.'" The problem for some readers will be that the above flora and fauna simply do not exist...outside of Crace's imagination. But it is this very selective inventiveness, these minute surprises, that weave a gossamer web of black comedy around the decay and loss of death.
Much of Crace's lyrical prose is lyrical simply because it is written in iambics. After her parents are buried, Syl, sitting on the steps of the church and listening to the hymns thinks of them as being "as thin as water, and as nourishing." Crace, himself, describes the hymns in hymn meter, of course. "Love songs transcend, transport, because there's such a thing as love. But hymns and prayers have feeble tunes because there are no gods."
Crace is obviously an artist; a writer's writer of the highest order. Being Dead is a novel of surrealistic beauty and that is what redeems it and sets it apart from other books that touch on similar subjects. Crace has managed to turn even the state of death into a meditation on the various cycles of life. He seems to lament the discovery of the bodies and the arrival of those who would "rescue" the mortal remains of Jospeh and Celice. "The dunes could have disposed of Joseph and Celice themselves. They didn't need help. The earth is practiced in the craft of burial. It embraces and adopts the dead. Joseph and Celice would have turned to landscape, given time. They would become nothing special. Gulls die. And so do flies and crabs. So do the seals. Even stars must decompose, disrupt and blister on the sky. Everything was born to go. The universe has learned to cope with death." One of the strongest statements Crace makes about death comes near the end of the book, nine days after the death of Joseph and Celine, when even the very grass they had been lying in has recovered and not a trace of the couple remains.
In Being Dead, Crace copes with dying in a very ordinary manner that manages to become most extraordinary, and, in so doing, he shows us the beauty inherent in something as natural and commonplace as the death of the physical body...a death not one of us will manage to escape. Death may be seen by some as an ending, but in Being Dead it is the most efficient and most exquisite continuation of life imaginable.
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Initial post: Jul 26, 2011 2:10:14 PM PDT
I only today stumbled upon this Author, novel...your review is so beautiful, I cannot wait to read this book! What a find!
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