Book Review: Eden, by Jim Crace

This week, I’m reviewing the forthcoming novel from the Whitbread Novel Award-winner and Booker longlisted author Jim Crace. Thanks to Picador for providing me with a proof of the book for the purposes of this fair and unbiased review.

From the Waterstones synopsis:

eden opens with a summons. The gardeners of eden are called by their masters, the angels, to see a dead body. It is that of a bird, a creature who has strayed beyond the garden walls. The garden’s inhabitants live an eternal and unblemished life – surrounded by bountiful fields, orchards and lakes, a place where the lord’s bidding is done. But outside, where there is poverty and sickness and death, this bird has met a fate that is beyond their imagining.

For the gardeners, this summons is a warning. Because something is wrong in eden. Years after the fall of Adam and Eve, a woman called Tabi has escaped, and the angels fear further rebellion. They know gardener Ebon and Jamin, the angel with the broken wing, would both follow Tabi anywhere, would risk the world outside if only they could find her. Perhaps another fall is coming . . .

My first experience of Jim Crace’s writing came some fifteen years ago, in the form of his post-apocalyptic novel The Pesthouse, which I enjoyed enough to seek out more by him. Structurally, he often likes to frame his narratives around one key event or moment, one that perhaps plays on the characters’ minds or sows the seeds of dissent. This can mean that a great deal of time is spent picking over a particular plot point or aspect of a character’s personality; this works excellently, the quality of his prose reward enough for persevering, but there is always the risk that it could feel exhausting. How does eden fare with this same approach?

Happily, it works as well as ever, though that’s not without a small caveat. There’s plenty of times when the same event is shown from multiple perspectives, or we’re given a clue as to something we’re going to see by a character who has witnessed the aftermath of it. This does mean that it’s a fairly sedate pace, which certainly won’t be for everyone, but the fairly compact size of the novel – the hardback clocks in at just 272 pages – coupled with Crace’s excellent prose results in an enjoyable stroll through his biblical garden. That’s not to say that this is a gentle read, however. Tension simmers in the garden, some of its workers unhappy with their lot and some of its angels seeming little better, whilst Alum (go-between for the latter party) relishes the inflicting of pain on his fellow habitants of the garden in the course of his duty.

That garden is certainly one of the stars of the show here too, Crace employing the kind of delicious descriptive powers he made such good use of in his 1992 novel Arcadia. The trees in the orchard where Ebon works (and where Tabi did until so recently) hang heavy with ripe and delicious apples ready to be polished and served to the angels who oversee them in the lord’s stead, while barrow loads of fresh tomatoes make for too tempting a target for the tearaway Tabi, precipitating her fall as the original apple did for the garden’s most famous former residents. It’s Tabi’s departure, in fact, that is the catalyst for much of the other events of the book, a chain of events which, once set in motion, seems almost unstoppable. It’s as if the narrative rolls, being guided first with gentle taps from plot point to plot point, gradually picking up pace until it has its own crushing momentum which the characters are powerless to stop.

With its simmering tensions and delicious descriptions, eden is a meditative and memorable take on the creation myth, not to mention a rewarding read. It’s out in the UK on the 18th, published by Picador.

Currently reading: Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, Rob Wilkins
Currently listening: Hate Über Alles, Kreator

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