eden by Jim Crace review – the world beyond the wall | jim race

Fmighty rivers, beautiful trees, bountiful crops, birds and animals to spare: Jim Crace’s latest novel is set in a tiny, scrupulously mapped version of the Garden of Eden. There, some time after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, a forced peace reigns: the few dozen human inhabitants know that they can “breathe forever without worry”, but there is a problem: they must obey the angels. These angels have been created in the form of birds, not so much for their beauty as for their vigilance abilities. “A creature that can pierce the sky can serve his lord and his masters anywhere.”

From an aerial perspective, the garden is a perfect circle, intricately manicured, a song of praise to a higher power. On the ground, things look quite different. “The order is the order of the day.” The gardeners, who are diligent and mostly mute, bake bread, clean latrines, gather vegetables and wood, plow the fields. They eat and pray together. At night they sleep in the same bedroom. The environment is more frugal than fertile: during fasting periods they are not even allowed to swallow their saliva. Ominously, the narrator describes this communal way of life as “sublime uniformity.”

The disturbing details accumulate. It is said that some of the gardeners feign illness or injury to get off work. They work in the wheat fields, they remove the slugs from the lettuces, they develop calluses, the thorns scratch them. This is less an idyll than a work camp. Indeed, what keeps the system going is the theology that outside, beyond the walls of Eden, lies both a void and a desert. Rumors circulate: of cannibals, ghosts, feral humans. Should Eden be read as a plantation or as an empire on the brink of collapse? More generally, do walls protect communities or are they evil structures that enact a kind of apartheid?

The suspense of the novel lies in trying to figure out if there is an insurgency in the offing. The storm arrives when a woman named Tabi disappears, leaving barely a trace. She has always been restless, “a bouncing breeze”, “the loudest mouth in the garden”. She works in the trees and is referred to as an “agitated bird”. Crace has written of her youthful enthusiasm for Jack Kerouac: Tabi often appears as a proto-Beat. Not only does he harbor heretical thoughts during sermons, he longs for disorder, freedom, the disorder of freedom. In a place like Eden, that desire is seditious, a “riotous contagion.” She has to be brought back.

In charge of the operation is Alum, whose job is to supply the communal pantry. Because he believes that “obedience is harmony,” and because he thirsts for power, he sides with angels rather than humans. As a spy and informer, he is said to have “eyes in his ass”. No wonder humans see him as a whining snitch. He reflects on his own isolation, the knowledge that he has become untouchable. The only balm for him is imagining “the touch of grabbing sisters by the wrists, the joy of beating brothers with fists.”

Alum doggedly pursues Tabi and secretly uses one of her admirers, an angel named Jamin, to stalk her. Blessed with dazzling blue plumage, Jamin is a cool layabout, a semi-monde aristocrat, less pompous or vindictive than his fellow angels. Seeing a human in a pond, he wishes that he himself could be “stripped of all responsibilities, all status, and all piety.” He flies beyond the walls of Eden to see what other worlds are possible, only to injure his wing so badly that he is known as a “broken angel”. The scenes in which Tabi grooms him (which “works against the weather vane but follows the axis…Goes places an angel can’t go”) are delightfully reminiscent of mid-’70s Europorn.

In Eden, Crace revisits a terrain of which he has long been a memorable explorer. The Gift of Stones (1988) goes back in history to the bronze age; Quarantine (1997) was a retelling of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert; 2013 Harvest, like Arcadia before it, investigated the myths and dark pasts of English ruralism. This last novel deploys murky, Hardy-esque language to revealing effect, turning the Garden of Eden into a place of sweat and toil rather than a diaphanous paradise. The feathers have a “musky odor”; Tabi stuffs herself with apples and is left with a “pippy face”; Ebon spends his time attacking “massager” wasps and butterflies. An assiduous and vividly documented anti-romanticism is evident on every page: pond fish are fed worms embedded in cysts; Tabi goes to urinate and gives off a “resinous smell and a warm mist”; even angel feathers suffer from lice, ticks and mites.

He does not spoil Eden to reveal that its action, extremely slow at the beginning, speeds up in the final third, and in a convulsive, almost carnivalesque way. “This is a story that will be told for years to come,” declares the narrator. “A love story, a story, a story of acquired wisdom, of growing old, of treasuring what is drawn in the air as much as what is solid earth and stone.” Crace revels in the art of storytelling here, but he too reads like he’s pulling a drawbridge, stopping the novel too soon after its tensions have begun to release. His characters are left stranded, not much more than pawns, with their fates predetermined. Such is the danger of writing fables: Eden, a novel about freedom, too often feels bound and unfree.

Jim Crace’s eden is published by Picador (£16.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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