Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On Reading: The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace

Near where I stay on Shetland, there is a wild peninsula called Scatness. A footstep away from the airport, walking on it feels as remote from civilisation as a moorland deep in the heart of the Scottish mountains. To reach it you go down a long track with some lonely cottages, past what at first looks like a tombstone but turns out to be a memorial to the end of the second world war in 1945: "Erected by Italian P. O. W. for kindness shown to them by the people of Scatness while serving with the R. A.F. coastal command". It feels possible that no-one has set foot on the peninsula since. One rarely sees anyone else there, although once we were accompanied by a lone Border Collie whose daredevil antics on the sharp rocks terrified and amazed us but were treated with disdain by the rabbits he was chasing. Here you can watch and listen to the waves uninterrupted by anything other than the cry and swoop of fulmar, Arctic Skua and oyster-catcher. It's a wonderful, dramatic, isolated place. On one unseasonably sunny day last October, we watched half a dozen seals bobbing about in the water until, with resignation and disbelief, we pulled ourselves away to head for the boat home and a return to our southern life.

I kept thinking about this remote part of Shetland as I was reading Jim Crace's excellent historical novel, The Gift of Stones. At the southern tip of the peninsula, looking towards Sumburgh Head and, ultimately, Fair Isle is the Ness of Burgi an Iron Age promontory fort and blockhouse. It is reached by a steep scramble up the rocks, with a rope handrail to your left for perilous clinging onto should it be windy - as it usually is on Shetland. The Historic Scotland sign among the ruined structure says: "We cannot be sure what this building was used for - a platform for rituals, a symbolic display of power and prestige, a defensive refuge, a coastal family home, or a mixture of these?" It is precisely this not knowing that adds to the air of mystery and excitement about this now uninhabited spot. I always feel a sense of awe at the thought of previous generations of humans occupying this space and eking out whatever precarious, or indeed rich and powerful, existence they could make possible there. Whatever kind of life it was, it couldn't have been easy. And it is no easy life that Crace describes in his story of a prosperous but insular Stone Age coastal community learning to come to terms with the arrival of invaders who bring a new metal [bronze] that threatens their livelihood.

“ The sea viewed from the clifftop is a world that’s upside down. Its gulls have backs. You’re looking down on wind. The shallows, from above, are flat and patterned, green with arcs of white where the water runs to phlegm…" Crace's prose is poetic, short sentences painting a succession of pictures that repeat and circle round each other. The narrator is the adopted daughter of a story-teller who as a boy lost the use of his arm when the community was raided. Her voice and his words form the backbone of the unfolding story. He weaves tales to earn his place in the group, unable to work as a knapper, carving the fine stone tools they make to use and trade. This difference, and his search for stories, lead him on trips away from the community. Walking the clifftops he brings back descriptions of the landscape that embellish the tales he produces for his listeners on his return. On one of these forays he meets a woman and her daughter living alone. The mother makes her living from the land and by offering sexual favours to passing men. He is both fascinated and appalled; gradually a kind of friendship develops between them as all three seek to find their place in the threatened community. Eventually, as the dust-jacket blurb has it,  'it is the fearless imagination of the storyteller that provides the community with a life-saving gift'. This is never a comfortable novel but Crace's strong descriptive prose makes it believable and leaves you feeling that you have had a real taste of what Neolithic life must have been like.

Crace's littoral descriptions are one of the particular delights of this book. "The clifftop path was cut by wolves and goats. It made no sense. At times it ran, ankle-deep, as straight as sunlight across thickets of winkle-berries…I breakfasted on fruit. But then...(t)heir paths ran out. I did the best I could, but made mistakes. I finished up on rocky promontories where going on meant sprouting wings. I found good downward paths to silent coves which offered no escape except by going back. I fell from rocks. I cut my shins. At least I wasn’t lost... Any fool could turn about and follow the clfftops home.” As with our walk on Scatness, a lone dog keeps the story-teller company. Available food consists of guillemot, eel, seakale, goose eggs, scallops, mussels, crab, and laver and samphire "picked at low tide in summer from the marshes".  In one of his stories, the story-teller describes what it is like in the world beyond what is familiar to his audience: “The landscape changed. It was not cliffs and coves. Low heathland swept gently to the shoe where thrift and black-tufted lichens lived side by side on rocks with barnacles and limpets. There were clumps of seablite, flourishing on spray, There was arrow grass and milkwort. All the herbs and medicines and dye plants that we saw bunched and dried and up for barter in the marketplace were in abundance here… I collected seablite for its purple fleshy leaves. Good for stews and dyeing wool.” And as the community make their way into this new world at the end of the book, it is these words that are repeated  as they are leaving the village, acknowledging the description from the story teller. His gift has made the unknown seem familiar, the unsafe seem possible, as the next tale for this small human community unfolds.  

No comments:

Post a Comment