Jim Crace's sixth novel begins with the two central characters lying murdered on an isolated beach. Joseph and Celice, both zoologists, had met as postgraduates on a field trip to Baritone Bay, their relationship being consummated among its dunes. When, after three decades of marriage, they discover that the area is about to be bulldozed to build luxury houses and a marina, the idea of a nostalgic return takes hold. Without informing anyone of their destination, they set off. It is to be their last journey - their presence on the beach provokes an act of random violence that leaves them mutilated and dying on a bed of lissom grass.
From here the narrative moves forward and back in time, exploring the biological and cultural consequences of death - in every way, Being Dead is the successor to Crace's previous study of mortality and belief, Quarantine, his fictional account of Christ's 40 days in the wilderness of the Judean desert. The bodies lie undiscovered for six days (a wry reference to Genesis), during which time we follow the ongoing putrefaction of the corpses. It is powerful writing, both in its remorseless detail and in the mordant irony of the two zoologists becoming substrates for the food chain they once studied. Woven into this account of progressive decomposition are retrospective strands that build a picture of Joseph and Celice's lives. This is Crace's version of a wake, or "quivering", whereby the deceased are "reclaimed" from death by the reminiscences of the living. It is this aspect of the narrative that allows him to develop his fundamental theme: the human hunger for meaning.
Crace affords us a ringside seat from which to view the harsh realities of the natural world. In Being Dead this is an arbitrary, godless place. Throughout the novel we are presented with the pitiless cycle of life and death - creature preys upon creature; whole species die out as habitats change; Baritone Bay itself will ultimately succumb to the bulldozers and construction workers. Nothing leaves its mark; one generation is erased by the next and "the universe could not care less". There is nothing to refute Celice's assertion to her students that life has no meaning, "other than to replicate and decompose".
While Celice and Joseph preach rational science they are also human beings, compelled to read significance into the events of their lives. It's an uncomfortable situation. Their histories - from the first somewhat ambivalent flowering of youthful attraction, through to the gradual senescence and reverses of their later years - mirror the natural cycle they observe in the world around them. Yet always they are tempted by meanings beyond the starkly biophysical. In rendering his zoologists as flawed, and in giving them such credible passions and regrets, Crace develops an almost unbearable sense of pathos. The only release for his characters, and for the reader, is in their being dead - free at last from breath and memory.
Even this is not the end. Crace highlights their six days of "grace" during which their deaths are unknown and their stories are their own. Once the bodies are discovered, the quest for meaning and interpretation is taken up by the living. Police, townspeople, newspapers and their estranged daughter all impose their own significance on the circumstances of the murders. The facts appear clear: Joseph and Celice were revisiting the scene of their courtship, their bodies were naked, Joseph's dying act was to reach out and touch his wife's leg. To some it is a testament to their love, something beautiful amid the blackness of the crime that killed them. Others find it shameful that a middle-aged couple should so degrade themselves by making love in public. The reader alone is privy to the messy but infinitely more human reality; we understand that even after death the storytelling goes on.
Being Dead is a stunning novel, ambitious and full of haunting imagery. The prose is hypnotic. There is the odd discordant note: the scene in which Joseph and Celice's daughter searches the mortuary for her missing parents is too obviously a device for Crace to introduce more death-related material, and the murderer, as a character, is a cypher.
As readers, we, too, try to find meaning in the story presented to us. Joseph and Celice's lives don't amount to much: brief passion; a stagnant marriage; the odd glimmer of love and fidelity; an alienated child; a group of acquaintances sending hollow cards of condolence. Within ten days of their dying, all trace of their existence has gone. There must, we feel, be more to life than that. But if we free ourselves from the hunger for meaning, the craving for stories, then the tenderness at the heart of Being Dead emerges. Joseph and Celice's lives may not have amounted to much, but in the end they did the best they could do.
Phil Whitaker is the fiction critic of the "NS". His most recent novel, "Triangulation", is published by Phoenix House