BOOK REVIEW / Shipwrecks and soda ash: 'Signals of Distress' - Jim Crace: Viking, 15 pounds

HERE comes the autumn, that 'whither-the-novel' season which, on the books pages of newspapers at any rate, witnesses the literary equivalent of those days of general humiliation which rulers in ancient times used to ordain to avert some threatening natural disaster. While the Booker shortlist is ritually trashed for being insular, parochial and tokenist, brow-furrowing articles appear, implying that fiction, like King George V's life in the words of the radio announcer, 'is drawing peacefully to a close'. And British novelists are annually berated for being either insufficiently Continental or else hopelessly unAmerican.

The resilience of certain cliches in what has become a national fixture is truly astonishing. For example, a vast consensual hypocrisy decrees that while it is perfectly acceptable for Joanna Trollope, Mary Wesley or P D James to deal with the theme of bourgeois normality, anybody aiming a little higher in the same genre instantly gets berated with epithets like 'Hampstead', 'dinner party', or 'chattering classes'. It's as if only one type of quotidian experience, the provincial aga-saga adorned with a dead body, were permitted.

Signals Of Distress, Jim Crace's fourth novel, is about as far as it is possible to get from contemporary NW3, but the fact that it is set in the 1830s will earn it a righteous slap or two from that sinisterly growing army of dogmatists who start crying 'Merchant-Ivory' as soon as a novelist dares to throw a backward glance. The burden of the past, as it happens, lies none too heavily on the story, and the so-called Cornish setting, in a fictional 'Wherrytown', is unlikely to start us reaching down Daphne du Maurier for topographical comparisons.

Aymer Smith, the novel's protagonist, brings the Wherrytowners the news that the kelp they have so assiduously garnered from the seashore to provide soda ash for his brother's soap factory will no longer be needed, thanks to the latest French chemical technology. Together with this unwelcome interloper arrives the shipwrecked crew of an American vessel, the 'Belle of Wilmington', cast on ashore alongside a small herd of cattle and a black slave named Otto, whom Aymer assists in making a break for freedom.

Not the least of Crace's skills is to stress, without actually making the point in so many words, the inherently anti-communal nature of Wherrytown and its inhabitants. There is no obvious sense of belonging, none of that rootedness to which cliched ruralist fantasy clings so eagerly. People get washed on to the coast as easily as they sail away from it, but the townsfolk muddle on gracelessly with their lives, a curmudgeonly bunch whose ultimate service to Aymer is to contrive, however indirectly, that he should be beaten senseless, the skin ripped from his face and his teeth knocked out.

Aymer, Crace tells us, 'was one of life's solitary travellers after all, a Radical, an aesthete and a bachelor. He didn't voyage in the multitude. He knew he was destined to a life alone.' The splendid absurdities of his idealism bumping against the grim-visaged ruthlessness of the Wherrytowners give the book a pawky humour in that venerably English tradition of anti-intellectualism, dating back to the 18th century, in which anybody with a vision, a system or a philosophy is destined for a comic pratfall in the name of blessed reality. Aymer's credentials as the latest victim of this fear of ideas are enhanced by his pathetic adherence to the 'Truismes of Emmanuel dell'Ova', a French philosophical tome which he uses for everything from patching up local quarrels to lighting the fire.

Significantly, the Truismes becomes part of a symbolic infrastructure (including the Cradle Rock, a vast boulder which the Yankee sailors topple off its pivot) at whose centre Aymer himself stands alone and misunderstood. He represents the doom, Crace seems to imply, of those who think and feel. I am not the first reviewer to notice the curiously insistent iambic beat of this writer's prose, forming hank upon hank of alexandrines and pentameters. Something here, an implicit bid for epic status perhaps, together with the style's resolutely unadverbial, syntactically stripped-down quality, challenges us to accept the universality of this very English novel.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape