|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