Jim Crace’s novels have one thing in common, which is that each is set in an entirely original world. None of these worlds is of a specific time or place, but they seem to have some connection to our own lives. The subjects Crace tackles are varied, from a microscopic study of death (Being Dead) to an eremitic retreat in the Judaean desert (Quarantine). They all deploy a terrible, lyrical, beauty that is nothing like any other novel I have ever read. Some of them are dystopian (The Pesthouse), some are set in very faintly demarcated places, or places that we recognise because we have dreamed of them. Yet this is not science fiction. It is rather a re-imagining of the world, using the available tools. It is as though Crace looks beyond and beneath the obvious, for the elemental, to produce prose poems whose cadences are accumulatively mesmerising.
Crace’s new novel is the story of an unnamed, and almost unknown, English village in — I think you can more or less establish — the middle of the 15th century. The village has a benevolent master, Charles Kent, who rules the families that have lived in the area since time immemorial — since Adam, as one of the inhabitants says. They inhabit a small world of ritual; ploughing, sowing and reaping mark their lives.
This life provides an ancient and deep-rooted satisfaction for the families. They are the dwindling survivors of other times, just on the edge of a world that is changing. It is the time of enclosures and sheep-farming is coming this way. Ominously, a surveyor, employed by Master Kent, has arrived to make charts and maps of the lands.
All in the space of a week,things begin to go wrong: a fire burns one of the master’s barns and kills his pigeons. Three strangers, two men and a woman, arrive on the outskirts of the village, and build themselves a sort of shelter. They are immediately suspected of the arson; instinctively the villagers want to punish them, without the slightest evidence.
The narrator of this story, Walter Thirsk, came to these parts many years before as the master’s servant, and is still treated as an outsider. He knows that the two men are not guilty, and he harbours a lust for the woman.But the men are sentenced to the pillory for a week and the woman has her head shaved. She vanishes. One of the men dies in the pillory, and his leg is eaten by foraging pigs. The master’s favourite horse is killed.
Master Kent’s cousin-in-law, Jordan Kent, arrives with his side-men; he has a legal claim to all the land, and intends to get rid of as many of the families as he can. Quickly the village descends into anarchy as innocent women and a young girl are accused of witchcraft and abused. The village is emptied.
I found myself completely drawn into this only half-rational world, with its near-heathen beliefs — there is no church — and its closeness to the land. Without inventing some cod Olde English, Crace achieves a cadence of speech which sounds and feels as if it is absolutely authentic. Apparently alone in the village, apart from the prisoner, Thirsk releases him from the pillory and puts him to work ploughing. His gesture is a magnificent paean for a lost, Arcadian, society.