cover image Signals of Distress

Signals of Distress

Jim Crace. Farrar Straus Giroux, $22 (275pp) ISBN 978-0-374-26379-9

A diversity of imaginative settings distinguishes the work of this brilliant British writer, who has portrayed various historical periods in such outstanding novels as The Gift of Stones and Arcadia. The background of this engrossing narrative is a hardscrabble fishing village on the English coast in the 1830s; with his usual dexterity, Crace has evoked the time, place and characters with an astute and ironic eye. When the Belle of Wilmington founders off the shore of Wherrytown, events ensue that embrace both high comedy and foreshadowed tragedy. The steamer's American captain and a crew that includes the African slave Otto take lodging in the village, where another stranger has arrived: priggish, verbose, effete, obtuse Aymer Smith has come to bring the bad news that his family's soap manufacturing company will no longer need the soda ash that country people salvage from kelp. A foolish man despite his moral principles and good intentions, Aymer frees Otto in the name of emancipation, but without consideration of the man's future in the frostbitten countryside. Aymer's moral indignation is no match for the machinations of the local agent, cunning Walter Howells, who outsmarts him at every turn and puts a plot in motion to sully Aymer's name and maybe break his skull. Meanwhile, Aymer naively pursues love among the townspeople and the scattered settlers in the surrounding rural area, blundering in every way. Crace masterfully deploys his poetic descriptive powers: on a brine-bloated drowned body, Aymer spying on a woman on a chamber pot, a midnight fishing crew awash in a ``gasping multitude'' of pilchards, a clutch of hopeful emigrants boarding ship for Canada. Though small in scale, the narrative offers a glimpse of the social fabric of the mid-19th century, with its mixture of ingrained customs and superstitions and the new scientific theories (``the tussling spirits of the age'') in the air. Filtered through character motivations that include farcical misunderstandings, poignant self-delusions, wily chicanery, false hopes and true love, this novel about people dislocated from their milieu fixes a mesmerizing grip on the reader's imagination. (Sept.)