Jim Crace is a novelist of the liminal. Not for him the steady state, the certain ground. From the outset of his literary career his work has explored moments of transformation, whether those moments are simply human or more broadly social. In The Gift of Stones, a new technology shadows a neolithic community; Quarantine takes on the Biblical tale of Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. In Being Dead, central characters die and their bodies decay; and his last novel, Harvest, was set against the background of the land enclosures. Even the space that his new book, The Melody, occupies could be considered doubtful: its author had said quite firmly that Harvest (shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013) would be his last novel.
Like Kazuo Ishiguro, Crace has a gift for creating specific, vividly imagined worlds which nevertheless exist outside the boundaries of traditional realism. The England of Harvest is not identifiable as any one particular place; the same can be said for the roughly Mediterranean – or perhaps Adriatic – landscape of The Melody. Its protagonist is Alfred Busi, known to his adoring admirers as “Mister Al”, a crooner of renown who now lives in retirement; his beloved wife, Alicia, has been dead for many years. He is reminded of her presence by a little string of bells in his larder which play a gentle Persian melody; and Alicia’s sister, Terina, remains a presence in Busi’s life. His is a quiet existence, mostly confined to his now-crumbling villa “at the old end of the promenade”, an area bordered by “the bosk”, “a tangled, aromatic, salt-resistant maze of sea-thorn, carob and pine-scrub”.
And then one night something comes out of the bosk and attacks Mister Al, just as the singer is due to be honoured by the town. It’s been known that animals – at least, they’re probably animals – emerge at night from the undergrowth and rummage in local bins; yet Busi is sure his attacker isn’t an animal, but a boy. A naked, feral boy. The local paper, Indices, runs a splashy story. Terina comes to tend him.
But all is not as it seems: for Terina’s son, Joseph, is a property developer who’s got his eye on Busi’s villa. He wants to modernise the old town: why feel menaced by the bosk when you could reside in The Grove, an undulating terrace of new apartments? Nothing, it turns out, is quite what it seems here.
That “here” is never defined makes Crace’s haunting story more immediate, not less. There is no “when” either. One may notice that the inhabitants of the town don’t possess mobile phones, and that reference is made to immigrants coming to America through Ellis Island (which was abandoned in 1954) and to “Mr Disney” (Walt died in 1966). And the whole is written in a kind of loose, trochaic metre that is absolutely mesmerising: “the looming presence of the trees… the shingled menace of the tide”.
On the surface Crace’s language seems for the most part unadorned, but the adornment here is in the melody of the prose. “He swung the chain of Persian bells, still hanging from the hinges and the latch, and listened to the melody that no one wrote, the song that had no words, the water that was waiting for its stone.”
Busi’s life is radically altered by the wild boy, not least because all of his relationships are altered. He begins to wonder if Terina really cares for him or whether she has an ulterior motive; he meets a young woman who calls herself Lexxx, a neighbour who looks out for him. With her clunky shoes, shapeless smocks and vital energy, she stands out too much as an authorial conceit in the otherwise creamily even surface of this novel. Crace’s gift is to construct a mechanism that does not feel like a mechanism at all. Do be sure to read the acknowledgments.
As in life, the events which follow Busi’s attack are not necessarily the expected ones. By the end of the novel, however, Mister Al is in decent shape, and has found a measure of peace, at least according to the book’s narrator, finally identified in the closing pages. But it is left to the reader to decide whether the unnamed town has been improved in the wake of the initial disturbance, or whether something has been lost. “I have the sense,” the narrator says, “though not the proof – the sense in nonsense, probably – that something other than ourselves persists.” As long as Crace keeps writing novels, it surely will.
Jim Crace will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 13 April (01223 357 851; cambridgeliteraryfestival.com)
Picador, 288pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left