There’s always an elbow nudge towards the present day in even the most historically distant or fantastical Jim Crace novel. His themes are perennial: the haves and the have-nots, social isolation, existential angst, the ramifications of violence, the insignificance of the individual washed by the great tides of history. His masterpiece, Quarantine, was a decidedly secular, intense evocation of forty days spent in the wilderness by a Jesus figure; Being Dead was a comfortless exploration of the decomposition of its central murder victims. His take on Paradise after Adam and Eve have departed was always going to undermine the source text.
Any story about Eden has to be a story about the Fall; unchanging serenity does not make a narrative. In shimmering, stately prose, Crace sets out the routines of an eternal existence as the deathless occupants of the Lord’s garden perform their daily round, supervised by angels. Perhaps it was long ago – time has no meaning here – that Adam and Eve left the high walls, their empty beds in the communal dormitory a warning and a reproof. This eden (significantly lower case) brings forth a cornucopia of produce but only after hard labour. Hands are calloused; every slip, trip or fall from a tree has physical consequences. Summer turns to autumn; there’s pickling to be done in Paradise. Latrines must be cleaned and chamber pots emptied.
In a separate residence live the angels, with whom the inhabitants are in daily communication, though only the lowest of them. The chain of command leading up to the Lord is stratospheric, so eden’s toilers must take his existence on trust. The angels have magnificent azure wings and dazzling flight, but Crace suddenly adds a bizarre detail – beaks. They roost; they soil their perches; they get mites. So… they’re giant birds?
Those beaks can also deliver a vicious pecking to anyone stepping out of line. Sinning in Paradise is mostly of the petty kind: laziness, sneaking food, napping. Sex is unknown but touch is valued. No serpent is required in this story, since one of the workers, Alum, is riddled with malevolence masked by virtue.
Two events have recently occurred to upset the placid routine. A dead bird has been found, raising unwelcome thoughts about the mortality that the workers have been assured will overtake them if ever they stray past the gates. And there has been an escape, by the rebellious Tabi (Crace loves a strong, beguiling female). She was always the one to question the official line about the dangers outside, the reality of the angels and the very existence of the Lord. Alum viciously snapped her fingers for scrumping a tomato, which may have been the last straw. Her disappearance – she could still be somewhere on the property – precipitates a chain of unstoppable events.
Throughout, Crace shows an amazing ability to maintain both a lofty standpoint and a touching empathy for his characters. The prose never falters or stumbles, whether in tragic or idyllic mode. Another of his tricks is to give an impression of great detail, which blurs and fades on closer inspection. How many angels are there? He shows us two, the lowly Jamin with the broken wing and the haughty leader, Jazib. How many gardeners? Only Ebon the orchard-tender and Alum the snitch come into full focus. Yet the illusion of a functioning society is complete.
Secure in their walled redoubt, assured of eternal youth, the gardeners are an oblivious superclass who only briefly glimpse the less fortunate during the casual handover of the food scraps and windfalls too rotten for any but the destitute to eat. Whether total security can ever equate to happiness is a key question; also, whether it is possible to know yourself without a point of comparison. The gardeners’ flawless health only becomes visible in contrast with the frailty of the mortals, who are horrifying and dirty yet vital and exciting. Without disaster there can be no triumph, without strife, no resilience. Seen from a high enough vantage point, destruction is simply transformation.