British writer, Jim Crace, has won critical acclaim for his two previous works of fiction, CONTINENT (1986) and THE GIFT OF STONES (1989). With ARCADIA, Crace continues to cut an original path for himself in contemporary English fiction. Victor, an eccentric recluse, is about to celebrate his eightieth birthday when it is revealed that he has plans for completely gutting the present marketplace — known as the “Soap Market” — and constructing a massive artifice. Within this artifice, known as “Arcadia,” Victor hopes to add a touch of a rural setting, including many trees within the climate-controlled structure. Crace traces Victor’s rise to prominence. He was born into abject poverty and grew up in the area he now wishes to reshape. The many urban hardships that he had to endure as a child molded him into a solitary man. His seemingly indispensable associate, Rook, is discovered to be dishonest and greedy. Victor has him fired, and Rook vows to get even by sabotaging the building of “Arcadia.” Even though Rook has lined his pockets with kickbacks, he understands better than Victor does how the people of Soap Market think and feel. He realizes that they really do not want to have their neighborhood completely changed into something beyond their comprehension.
The author details the vitality of the Soap Market and how its inhabitants carve out a living as best they can. City life is often mean and unkempt, but Crace makes the point that it is nearly impossible to mold a metropolis into something more pleasant without also stifling a city’s energy. In the end, Victor is victorious and his “Arcadia” is constructed, but its former inhabitants merely move to a new location to continue living life as they know it. Crace has written ARCADIA in chiseled prose that holds together like a finely honed poem. The novel is stunning — if at times somewhat lifeless — and compels the reader to ponder how a city can seemingly have a vibrant life of its own outside anyone’s complete control.