by Jim Crace
It begins with a fire. The harvest is in and the villagers are ready for a celebration. Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, is alerted by the smell of smoke and a crackling sound – it’s “rackety” – “a timber fire for sure”. The blaze turns out to be in the dovecote of kindly Master Kent, master of the manor and village in which he, Walter and another sixty or so souls live. The dovecote and a barn are wrecked and the Master’s doves have been greedily devoured. Surely this must be the work of outsiders – no villager would do such a thing. But Walter has seen something and knows better.
Then another plume of smoke is spotted on the edge of the forest. Strangers have turned up, two men and a strikingly beautiful woman, caped in velvet; clearly they must be responsible for the fire and the massacre of the Master’s doves. The men are pilloried and the woman’s head is shaved. She is banished to the forest to fend for herself while the men suffer horribly.
While the villagers brood over the arrival of these strangers, especially the shadowy woman, another threat arrives in the shape Edmund Jordan, Master Kent’s cousin by marriage. Jordan lays claim to the manor and the land which he announces he intends to enclose - "the sheaf is giving way to sheep". This means disaster for the villagers who will be surplus to requirements and will have to find a home and work elsewhere. In one short week their way of life is changed forever.
This is another piece de resistance from Jim Crace. The place and the time are ambiguous, the language is elegiac, the storytelling unsurpassable; but it’s not like any novel on rural life you’ll have read before. Jim Crace claims that this, his eleventh novel, will be his last. Savour every word.
Published by Picador, hardback and kindle, 273pp. Paperback out in Feb 2014.
Read our interview with Jim Crace.