Joseph, fifty-three, and his wife, Celice, fifty-five, are doctors of zoology living quiet, successful academic lives. The couple met as graduate students and spent a summer at a beach retreat with four other students doing research. The novel opens with their return to the seaside location of their first tryst, where their plans for romance are cut short by a predator who beats them to death and steals their car and a few belongings.
The novel then forks off onto three narrative threads, the first of which concerns the six days during which their bodies remain undiscovered on the beach. Crace systematically and thoroughly details the process of decomposition. A second thread traces the couple’s meeting, Celice’s initial dismissal of Joseph until she hears him singing one night, and her determination to seduce him. On the morning of their lovemaking, the study house in which they have been residing burns down and the other female student, Festa, dies. Celice’s marriage is haunted by the memory of this lost girl. The last and briefest narrative is that of Syl, the couple’s waitress daughter, whose aimless life has long disappointed her parents. Once alerted that they have not appeared for their lectures, the girl begins a search for them and later identifies their rotting bodies and arrives at a life-altering perception.
As the title suggests, the novel is devoted to the phenomenon of death and can, in fact, be seen as a modern memento mori, a sustained meditation on death and mortality. In the most fundamental way, the novel asks the enduring questions that no one can finally answer: What is death, and what is its significance? As the narrator remarks, death is “an ill-lit corridor with all its greater rooms beyond.” There is, however, no sentimental speculation. Life is too brief, death is too long, and the universe is utterly unsympathetic; it carries on regardless of the course of human affairs. As the narrator quite bluntly states, “This was not death as it was advertised: a fine translation to a better place; a journey through the calm of afterlife into the realms of instinct and desire. The persons had not gone elsewhere, to blink and wake, to sleep and salivate in some place distinctly other than this world, in No-reality.”
The narrative takes the reader into intimately close proximity with the death experience itself. As Celice is beaten, the narrator calmly describes the sensation:
Her heart collided with her ribs. Her body shook and arched. Her head was loose and hurtling through rimless chambers. Some conjuror had vaporized the earth and emblazoned all the space through which she fell with pixilated, pulsing lights. Her final moments were kinetic, abstract, pointillist.
Likewise, the descriptions of decomposition are sharply and specifically rendered, and, not surprisingly in a book about a pair of zoologists, the forces of nature are most conspicuous.
The swag flies found it easiest to feast on the blood in her hair or to settle in the swampy bruises on her neck and gums or at the damage to her hands. They fed in clinging multitudes. Loose knots of flies. They made black balls of wings and antennae amongst the clots, as weightless and as dry as tumbleweed. . . . Some flies strayed round the bare flesh of her lower body, settled in the hair between her legs or at the tuck of her anus, but found few pickings.
In an interview, Crace, a confirmed atheist, revealed the inspiration for such scrutiny when he described his dissatisfaction with his father’s unceremonious cremation:
After that, I didn’t want to abandon my atheism, but I wanted to find a kind of atheism in which there were some of the things that religions had always held to be their own, and which I think that, emotionally, most atheist people are open to: things like transcendence and mysticism and spiritualism. Those things are in the world and, even though I don’t believe in God, my feeling is that the things that make people believe in God are really there. . . . What I wanted to do was to provide a narrative of comfort for atheists.
This consolation comes in the novel’s detailed tracing of the natural end of all life, its inevitability and purely democratic process.
Crace constructs his own mythology to explain the phenomenon unsentimentally. Mondazy, a local writer, posits an explanation in a memoir that contributes to the seaside community’s resident folklore. Death, as he describes it, is Fish, a predator that comes at any time to everyone and accounts for the distinctive look and smell of corpses. This, like all myths, provides a fanciful yet palpable explanation for that which eludes or threatens humans, and references to Mondazy form one of the book’s persistent leitmotifs.
In one sense the novel is also a eulogy, which none of the characters offers for these departed. Early in the fiction, the narrator presents a description of the forgotten practice of “quivering” (another of...
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