Alfred Busi is a singer of a certain age, feted and garlanded in his home town and indeed about to be made the subject of a commemorative bust on its Avenue of Fame, but quietly ravaged by grief for his dead wife. One night he is drawn from the faded opulence of his seafront villa to investigate a clattering commotion, and for his pains is assailed by what he later insists was a feral child come down from the ‘bosk’, a scrubby woodland above the town.
He appears the next day at the unveiling of the sculptural tribute, patched up by his sister-in-law, shaky and disarrayed. He begins a course of rabies injections, which he will be too frightened to complete. As he makes his meandering way home through a park that has become home to a feared and mistrusted migrant community, he’s attacked again. The celebratory concert he’d been scheduled to give proves too much for him, though a talented young accordionist steps in to save the night.
We next encounter Alfred a few years later, now firmly entrenched in old age. He’s been rehoused in one of the luxurious apartments built on the site of his former villa, in a bold development project conceived by his boorish nephew and somehow facilitated by the furore over Alfred’s mysterious assailant and the occult rumours it generated.
I suppose the foregoing paragraphs contain what could be described as spoilers. Maybe I should have warned you about that at the beginning. But I prefer to see them as programme notes, and I hope they won’t be prescriptive, but will instead be helpful as far as they go, like being told Beethoven’s Große Fuge is based on a six-note ascending chromatic figure in B flat but begins in G. Jim Crace seems to view the stuff of ordinary novels – broadly, things happening to people in places over time – as raw material for some private enterprise, fugitive and strange.
This book has ‘themes’, to be sure, ranging from the intimate to the political: ageing, loss, the pros and cons of gentrification, the barbarism of respectable men, the migrant crisis and European folk culture, among others. It also has a rich sense of place. All but a few proper names or identifiable tics of language are withheld, but this isn’t a high modernist nowhere as seen in Coetzee’s Jesus books or Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (though high modernist nowheres in novels always make me think of Munich for some reason). It’s somewhere in the western Mediterranean, a couple of days by boat from the Tunisian coast; the language is a mixture of French and Italian, the belle-époque buildings show traces of salt damage, locally celebrated artists are ranged along the Avenue of Fame in tarnished bronze effigy, chests puffed out, medals a-jingle. Stick Alfred in a linen suit and you can imagine him tipping his hat to one of John Banville’s elegantly unspeakable men as they pass on the promenade, each maybe stifling a shiver of recognition.
Alfred is a relatively sympathetic character, though, and not just because he has a pretty hard time of it in the book. He contemplates the death of his love, a fleeting tryst with her sister and the waning of his talent with wry resignation. His feelings towards his preternatural visitor are a vividly human mixture of understandable apprehension and a pronounced, solicitous strain of tenderness – it’s noted that he and his wife did not have children of their own.
The intruder, never seen full face and never quite accounted for (is he a refugee, a dream object made flesh, a werewolf or what?), asks to be treated as some sort of allegorical figure. But Crace doesn’t seem interested in symbols in any obvious sense. The town’s migrant population has by the end of the book been entirely conflated with the remarkably varied fauna of the bosk; both are eventually ‘purged’ by the burgesses in a single wild hunt. There’s a definite psychosexual angle, too, or at least an interest in the racier end of anthropology, Purity and Danger and all that (the Wolf Boy isn’t quite Freudian, but he’s very Angela Carter). The book is suffused with music, from the title on down: in Alfred’s professional life, and the piano at home with his wife’s ashes on top; in that bloody accordion; and in noises off, such as church bells and so on. But these aren’t press-ganged into metaphorical service. Rather they are allowed to resonate freely, generating overtones and harmonics for any who choose to hear them.
It may be that the book itself is intended to aspire towards the condition of music, as various savants have said all art should do – though, again, Crace eschews any of the devices you’d expect to see if that were his goal: the writing is prettily burnished and nicely cadenced, but it’s notably unornamented if you compare it to that of, say, Banville. And the narrative structure is richly if perplexingly literary – the book stays close to the main players most of the time, but it’s narrated by a fellow townsman, an acquaintance of Alfred, and a party to the final, terrible assault on the bosk: ‘There were some claims that naked humans had been seen and caught, and other claims of unnamed, unknown beasts, new to science, of mythical, unlikely creatures, those necessary monsters of our dreams against which we have to bolt our doors at night.’