The Gift of Stones

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Gift of Stones, by Jim Crace, is an intensely beautiful, compelling novel. A child’s amputated arm discovered during an archaeological dig and the subsequent speculation about what may have happened become the motif for a powerful work of imagination. The author creates an ancient stoneworkers’ village in which the characters are shaped by their work. Within this industrious, ordered village, a seven- year-old boy’s injury, which makes him unfit for the stoneworkers’ trade, frees him to develop as a storyteller or bard.

The villagers live in a world of absolutes, oblivious of the unknown chaos of the world outside their village and unthreatened by the roughness of the horsemen who ride into the village They are secure in the fact that they are indispensable. The father, telling of when he was a boy, speaks of “the scripture of our village—that we could not be touched because we possessed the gift of stones.” The villagers knew that, as long as the outside world wanted tools that could be used “to pierce and slice, to cut and scrape, to remove the flesh from the inner side of pelts for making clothes,” or wanted “harpoons and arrows light and sharp enough to fly and kill,” the world was dependent upon the skill of the villagers and the villagers were safe.

By setting the novel in a primitive culture, Crace provides a fresh glimpse of the universal aspects of human nature. A young boy’s need for approval and acceptance, his longing for adventure, and his creation of imaginary adventures, although occurring in a prehistoric village of stone craftsmen, are as current as today’s experience. The boy’s need as a teenager for a wider field to explore, his longing to be touched, his reaching for the warmth and intimacy of a family that he does not have, and his frustrated sexual desires bring instant recognition.

Setting the events in a distant time also enables Crace to show a modern phenomenon—the drastic effect of a change in technology on a people—without the clutter of peripheral issues surrounding a modern example. The villagers’ inability to comprehend the new development—bronze tools and weapons—that has eliminated the market for stone tools and their reluctance to seek a new place and new means of making a living become vivid. The way the villagers’ experience parallels that of the boy, with neither able to continue life as before, personalizes the villagers’ loss of their livelihood and way of life. Within a deceptively simple story, the destinies of both the small boy and the village are radically affected by forces beyond the control of either. An arrow wound in the arm of the boy alters the direction of his life dramatically; the advent of a new technology shakes the life of the stoneworkers’ village at its foundation.

The mode of narration illuminates a central theme: the storyteller’s intermingling of bits and pieces of fact with lies and his shaping of the whole into a new and entertaining reality. The narrator, a girl, tells about her father, a one- armed storyteller, but she primarily does so by allowing him to tell his own stories. He usually gives several possible versions of an event, each plausible and intriguing; she then guides the reader to the most plausible story and explains why she thinks it represents the truth. The girl, sifting and sorting through the stories, pointing up those things that are clearly lies, giving eyewitness accounts of those things she knows firsthand, is entirely credible as a narrator. Her credibility and her straightforward way of telling almost make the reader forget that much of what she tells is from her father’s stories. The girl’s objective view of events and people and her critiques of the stories of her father help authenticate the events that are true within the context of the novel. The presentation of speculative versions of some events, with the girl acknowledging that they are speculative, and eyewitness versions of others enhances the reliability of the narrator and the credibility of the entirely fictional narrative.

As the mode of narration reveals the craft of the storyteller, so the events of the novel reveal the emerging storyteller. The boy’s loss of his right arm makes him useless for stonework and frees him to develop his tendency to tell lies into the craft of storytelling. The boy’s adventures into the world beyond the village give him the glimpses of raw materials from which to shape stories: a sailing ship; a strange, soft, red stone; the wild geese that flock to the heath. Converting his glimpse of a ship into a story about a ship that came ashore, the boy discovers the power of his tales. “Why tell the truth,” he asks, “when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh—and cough—and roll her eyes? People are like stones. You strike them right, they open up like shells.” The villagers are delighted by his tales; they look to him for comfort.

The girl sees her father as two men. One, the “husband- brother-son” in the less structured world of the heath, will attempt any kind of work. Although clumsy, he will feed the child, catch crabs, gather edible plants for food, and tend the fire. “This was the man who came to love the girl and treat her as a daughter of his own. She sees the other as “the minstrel- king of lies, the teller of wide tales” whom the villagers regard as physically helpless but who can “concoct from, say,...

(The entire section is 2240 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Library Journal. CXIV, April 1, 1989, p.110.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 9, 1989, p.3.

The New Leader. LXXII, March 20, 1989, p.20.

The New York Times Book Review. July 16, 1989, p.12.

Newsweek. April 24, 1989, p.76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, February 10, 1989, p.54

The Times Literary Supplement. September 2, 1988, p.952.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, May 21, 1989, p.3.