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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.