No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, August 26, 2013

2013/27: The Gift of Stones -- Jim Crace

Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh -- and cough -- and roll her eyes? People are like stones. You strike them right, they open up like shells. [p. 48]
The Gift of Stones is one of Crace's shorter novels, but -- as in the quotation above -- he packs a great deal into a small space. (Rereading that quotation, I realise that the two words 'and cough' reveal more about one of the characters in the novel than I'd noticed when I first read it.)

It is the late Stone Age. In a nameless village of flint-knappers, a nameless child is shot by strangers. The arrow is poisoned: after half a day's agony while a suitably sharp knife is crafted, the boy loses his arm. Unable to work stone (the sole trade, and sole pride, of the village) he turns to story-telling. Hunting far afield for new tales, he encounters the woman nicknamed 'Doe', whose husband and sons have been slaughtered by strangers, leaving her to barter sex for food. The storyteller takes her and her infant daughter back to his village, and watches as she learns to mine flint -- and then to not mine flint.

Anyway, the flint trade is dying, though nobody can work out why. The mongers, who sell worked flint artefacts to strangers who pass through, can't explain it. Nor can the stoners, the folk who work the stone. The storyteller cannot say why trade is falling off, but he can tell of what he's seen. Change is coming.

Economic oppression, craftsmanship, art and inequality: also, a deceptively simple style, a rhythm that calls to mind oral tradition (much, though not all, of it breaks nicely into iambic pentameter), and a vividness of image that adds immediacy to the ancient past. It's easy to believe that these people -- ignoble, quarrelsome, pragmatic, cruel -- were our ancestors.

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