By Jim Crace
Viking 1999, Picador 2001
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Being Dead begins in the aftermath of a murder. It is not a mystery in any conventional sense, as it soon becomes quite clear who the culprit was. A random act of violence has ended the lives of a husband and wife, two British middle-aged zoologists. They have returned to the scene of their first tryst, a hollowed out space between the sand dunes of Baritone Bay, a strange place of singing sands, which is not actually a bay at all but rather its opposite. As Crace says in the characteristically dry tone of this novel:
“Who would have thought that unattractive people of that age and learning would encounter sex and murder in the open air?
They paid a heavy price for their nostalgia.”
The novel moves both forward and back from this moment. There are actually four strands to this deftly woven story. The present unfolds as a description of what happens biologically in the hours and days after their murder. It is detailed and macabre, and yet also one of the most poetically rendered parts of the story. Later, the slow process of being missed and (eventually) found is told, along with all the effects this has on their alienated adult daughter. But at the same time, we move back in hourly progression to the beginning of this fateful day, and also to the week of the couple’s first meeting at a study house on the shore. There is a tragedy here that opens the beginning of their lives together, and it has taken them thirty years to return to this place.
In Crace’s world, all gods have departed, and there is no hope of anything for the individual beyond life itself. As Celice and Joseph’s daughter Syl comes to realize,
“No one transcends. There is no future and there is no past. There is no remedy for death—or birth—except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.”
But in the sheer beauty of the natural process that Crace delineates, there is still a kind of grace. At a late point in the book, the narrator laments that Celice and Joseph’s bodies were ever found and subjected to ‘proper burial’.
“The dunes could have disposed of Joseph and Celice themselves. They didn’t need help. The earth is practised in the craft of burial. It gathers round. It embraces and adopts the dead. Joseph and Celice would have turned to landscape, given time.”
One of the salutary achievements of this short novel is that it makes mortality immediate to us—our own and everything else’s—in a way that many other tales do not. When asked by Adam Begley for the Paris Review about the difficulty of writing it, Crace said:
“The hard companion is death. The hard companion is not the prose, not the actual task of writing that lays before you that day. I don’t find it difficult to achieve the effects I’m going for—but nevertheless there is a cost for some of those effects—having to think about death itself, to spend a lot of time in somber circumstances—that’s hard.”
But as Crace so clearly shows, being dead is not really the end of anything. As he has the scholar Mondazy note:
“Our Books of Life don’t have an end. Fresh chapters are produced though we are dead. Our pages never terminate. But given time, the paper yellows, then turns green. The vellum flesh becomes the leaf.”
As to Mondazy’s Fish, I’ll leave you to discover just what that is within the pages of this book yourself.