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Being Dead: A Novel by Jim Crace
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Being Dead: A Novel (original 1999; edition 2001)

by Jim Crace

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1,180406,832 (3.76)76
Member:hemlokgang
Title:Being Dead: A Novel
Authors:Jim Crace
Info:Picador (2001), Edition: First Edition, Paperback, 208 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:USA, National Book Critics' Circle Award

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Being Dead by Jim Crace (1999)

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English (39)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (40)
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Coming to this book only from his short-listed Booker nominee ‘Harvest’, I was unsure what to expect. Even if I had read more of Crace, I doubt if I could have predicted anything about this book apart from its originality. I’m not talking about the way Crace works his way back wards through time which isn’t that original but of the way he deals with death which is a curious mixture of the scientific and creative if that latter word can b used to describe the way he delineates the body’s disintegration upon dying. It’s also a curiously detached account, the murderer even being called ‘the good mortician’ at one stage, his killing of Cecile and Joseph being in such a seldom frequented place and their bodies being so anonymous with his theft of their possessions that they might be spared the usual rituals of the departed and Joseph, who died touching Celice ‘could hold her leg for good’. Having quoted that at the end of my sentence, I realise how much it contradicts what I said at the start about it being a detached account. Clearly Crace is also showing his sense of humour here. In fact, this humour keeps reappearing. When Syl goes to the mortuary to see if her parents are there, we are given, in Crace’s further exploration of death, a definitive description of what is done to the bodies, four of them being prepared for the final rituals. ‘The fourth one was being beautified: his wounds and half-formed scabs were masked by theatrical cosmetics, panstick and rouge. It wasn’t right to bury him if he was looking dead’. This sort of macabre humour is extended a few pages later when Syl finds out that her parents are dead: ‘her gene suppliers had closed shop’!

Although Crace makes it sees at times like a dispassionate examination of death, peppering the novel with factual or apparently factual details, it seems as if he allows non-scientific beliefs to hold some sway. So, while we get a breakdown of the likely causes of death (‘The heart-attack was suspect number one’), we also have natural explanations from Celice’s ‘The Goatherd’s Ancient Wisdom’ and a seemingly true prediction of bad luck if you hear the baritone voice coming off the sea. with Joseph and Celice paying the price of hearing it all those decades earlier. In Crace’s analysis of death I was reminded at times of McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’ in the way science and fiction come together.

All this makes it seem as if the novel is simply an examination of a process but that’s just Crace’s juggling of the thematic aspect. The novel amounts to much more than that and, as in ‘Harvest’, it’s Crace’s style of writing which is so captivating as well as his characterisation. This paragraph, I think, well illustrates Crace’s wry originality: ‘So there was Joseph on the morning of his death, flushed already by the early sun and by the prospect of an outing with Celice, looking down along the cotton and the flesh towards the hollows and the beacons of her armpits and her chest, her blemishes, her moles, the rib bones of a woman thin with age, the smell of her – bedclothes and sweat – the smell of breakfast on a tray, her body sliced up by the sun into jagged bands of shade and light.’

Judging by this novel and ‘Harvest’ I’ll really enjoy reading more of Crace’s writing – I can’t think why I hadn’t heard of him earlier. It makes you wonder how many excellent novels you must be missing out on. ( )
  evening | Jan 1, 2014 |
The death of the married couple and the inevitable reclaimation of their bodies by nature were the best parts of this novel. These scenes were so satisfying that I can overlook the awkward chapters dealing with how Joseph and Celice found each other and fell in love. Is it bad that I found Celice's guilty feelings really annoying? ( )
  diovival | Oct 14, 2013 |
A strange and interesting little book. I don't think I'll get the image of the two dead people out of my head for a while, but not in a creepy way.
Reading in detail about the decomposition of someone's body is a weirdly intimate thing, kind of like getting stuck in an elevator with a stranger. ( )
  JenneB | Apr 2, 2013 |
I want to say this novel is morbid but that's not entirely true. Instead, peculiar would be a more fitting word. First, it contains the longest description of decomposing bodies and the organisms that profit from it that I've ever read. It recalled the detailed and forever memorable rotting of Miss Havisham's neglected wedding feast only, you know, with human corpses.


Second, we start out with this married couple in midlife being dead and go backwards. We learn enough about these two zoologists-what they were like when they were young, how they met and became closer and everything inbetween. By the end of the book, we know infinitely more than we'd ever thought to want to know about the two that were killed off beginning on page 1. And yet, these are the main protagonists of the book and the more that you read, the more that you wish you could escape the inevitable fact that these two are not going to have any moments together anymore. It's as if being dead redeems them as characters because you grow attached and you even love them a little. All the while, the tragedy is accentuated. And in these 200 pages that escape, you find yourself slowly realizing ad you grow to love them that it might, in fact, be because they are no more. If they were alive, surely they would not be as interesting or as (ironically) vivid as they are now. They are preserved in a sense of tragedy that makes them intriguing.


Third, it's much less predictable than most fiction on this topic. Our two protagonists are dead from the start because of a rather brutal murder but instead of focusing on who did it and why, Crace instead tells us their story. In a way, that makes them less like victims and more like modern British tragic heroes. It's also what makes the story more interesting than a whodunnit or a why did it happen sort of novel. There's enough already written like that and not as many with this sort of angle. ( )
2 vote kirstiecat | Mar 31, 2013 |
I always enjoy Jim Crace's novels. This one has a more predictable format than others but the way he deals with the subject is what makes it stand out.
We start with the murder of Celice and Joseph and then Jim Crace plays with time, with narrative about the few minutes and hours before the murder, narrative about the minutes, hours and then days before the bodies are discovered by humans and what other animals discover the bodies and we are also taken back 30 years in time, when Celice and Joseph first met. Jim Crace fits all this together in to a clear picture of the couple. We also meet their daughter but have a very unclear picture of her relationship with her parents and just see this through her reaction to their death.
Fantastically written, tightly held together and gripping throughout this is a marvellous read although it will be difficult for the squeamish. ( )
  Tifi | Mar 11, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Yet for all the "experimental" feel that he imparts to his work, the fact is that, to say it again, Crace is working firmly within the mainstream of English fiction, and a good thing that is, for English fiction, at least. A solid yet always adventurous writer, he has done much to revitalize a tradition in danger of becoming moribund.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, John Banville (pay site) (Apr 13, 2000)
 
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Epigraph
       Oh, sure!
It's Putrefaction and Manure
And unrelenting Rot, Rot, Rot
As you regress, from Zoo. to Bot.
I'll Grieve, of course,
Departing wife,
Though Grieving's never
Lengthened Life
Or coaxed a single extra Breath
Out of a Body touched by Death

"The Biologist's Valediction to his Wife' from Offcuts by Sherwin Stephens
Dedication
For Pam Turton
First words
For old times' sake, the doctors of zoology had driven out of town that Tuesday afternoon to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes at Baritone Bay.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
On Baritone Bay, in mid-afternoon, Joseph and Celice, married for almost thirty years, lie murdered in the dunes. The shocking particulars of their passing make up the arc of this courageous and haunting novel. The story of life, mortality, and love, Being Dead confirms Crace's place as one of our most talented, compassionate, and itellectually provocative writers. (on book back)
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312275420, Paperback)

Penzler Pick, June 2000: It begins with a murder. Celice and Joseph, in their mid-50s and married for more than 30 years, are returning to the seacoast where they met as students. They are reliving their first amorous encounter in the sand dunes when they are set upon by the murderer who beats them to death with a rock and steals their watches, their jewelry, and even their meager lunch. From that moment forward, this remarkably written book by Jim Crace becomes less about murder and more about death. Alternating chapters move back in time from the murder in hourly and two-hourly increments. As the narrative moves backward, we see Celice and Joseph make the small decisions about their day that will lead them inexorably towards their own deaths. Eventually we learn about their first meeting, and that this is not the first time tragedy has struck them in this idyllic setting.

In other chapters the narrative moves forward. Celice and Joseph are on vacation and nobody misses them until they do not return. Thus, it is six days before their bodies are found. Crace describes in minute detail their gradual return to the land with the help of crabs, birds, and the numerous insects that attack the body and gently and not so gently prepare it for the dust-to-dust phase of death. Celice and Joseph would have been delighted with the description: she was a zoologist and he was an oceanographer, and they spent their lives with their eyes to the microscope, observing the phenomena of life and death. Some readers might find this gruesome, but the facts of death are told in such glorious prose that these descriptions in no way detract from the enjoyment of the book.

After her parents do not return home, their daughter, Syl, must search the morgues and follow up John and Jane Doe reports until she is finally asked to make an identification of the remains in the dunes. We then discover that the reader has had a more intimate relationship with them in death than Syl ever had with them in life. This small gem of a book, not really a mystery in the usual sense, will stay with you long after you finish. --Otto Penzler

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:47 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"A middle-aged couple, Joseph and Celice, are murdered on a remote East Coast sand dune. They are not discovered for six days. Both doctors of zoology, Joseph and Celice would recognize what is happening to their decomposting bodies if they could have watched."--Container.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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