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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor