From whispering muse to the gift of stones, this was the second book I read in 2016, one of Jim Crace’s earlier philosophical works, telling the tale of a village of stone workers, who live a simple life working stone into weapons, which are then traded with passers-by for food and other essentials, which they are not able to provide for themselves, in the arid landscape within which they reside. It is a livelihood they think little about, it is all they know.
A boy’s destiny is changed after he is injured in the arm by an arrow. The arrow is a symbol of change and both opens and closes this short, though provoking novella.
The injury becomes a turning point for a boy, his arm partially amputated, making him unable to follow in the village tradition, he must find another way of contributing to his community. His predicament is a foretelling of what is to come, but first he alone must learn to adapt.
He ventures outside, further from the village than anyone has ever been, near the sea and the heath, bringing them tales of beyond, discovering the allure and power of imagination. Experiencing things and feelings he has never encountered.
Already an orphan living with his uncle in a stone age village of people who work with flint, his injury turns him into a storyteller, inspired by his walks along the coastline towards the heath where he meets a woman with her baby living alone in a hut. He discovers how to captivate and amuse an audience, to take their minds off their day-to-day torments.
‘The paradox is this – we do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.’
He brings the woman back to the village, however she isn’t welcomed by the villagers, set in their ways. She too symbolises the lessons they must learn, though they will realise this much too late. When he tells the villagers her history, a truth, they become bored and turn away.
‘Quite soon they found it far too dark and cold to listen to my father any lore. They peeled away before the tale was done, unmoved by my father’s portrait of the widow and her child on the heath, her struggles not to die, her hardships, grief and hunger, the slaughter of the geese, the crushing of her hut. Quite soon there were no cousins left to hear my father’s tale. His audience – excluding bats and mother – had crept away, unamused and angered by the venom in his voice.
My father stood alone and startled – for now he understood the power of the truth.’
It is a philosophical tale of unrequited love, abandonment, survival and the heralders of change, how communities react to the necessity to adjust, and to those who are different, outsiders.
It touches on the role of imagination and storytelling, not just as entertainment and a craft, but as those who foresee change, create invention, imagine other ways of life.
Poignant and intriguing, given the era within which it is set and a kind of tribute to the greater importance of storytelling within society.