This is my review of Signals of Distress by Jim Crace.
Original, imaginative and quirky, well-written with sharp irony and some striking descriptions – the storm of silvery pilchards making “the sea drenched in fish….as if the water had lost its liquidness and was turning to solder” – Jim Crace transports us to a remote Cornish fishing town in the winter of 1836.
The routine of life in Wherrytown is upset when “The Belle of Wilmington” with its American crew and unfortunate slave Otto shackled to the orlop deck runs aground on a sand bar, with much of its cargo washed ashore, including a herd of cattle which offer the locals the prospect of some illicit beef. This dramatic event coincides with the arrival of Aymer Smith: full of good intentions but pedantic, unworldly, socially inept with a gift only for causing trouble without meaning to and irritating everyone he meets. Aymer’s mission is to apologise in person to those dependent for their livelihoods on the collection of kelp from the beaches, who will suffer from his brother’s decision to switch from the use of kelp ash to sodium carbonate in the soap-making progress. Aymer is determined to compensate them – with bars of soap, coins, perhaps even a rash proposal of marriage.
This is a confined, prejudiced, harsh, every-man-for-himself world, typified by the ruthless local agent, wheeler-dealer Walter Howells. Yet in a varied cast of characters, some show flashes of kindness against the odds, and even Aymer eventually becomes an object of sympathy – a foolish yet essentially decent man.
The story may seem to meander along, at times too absorbed in minor detail, yet the author is forging a chain of cause and effect, working towards an end which, even if you guess it, is quite powerful and haunting. There is a vein of unremitting honesty, even visceral cruelty, a sense of fate, in Jim Crace’s writing which also gives it authenticity, and embeds an unusual tale in one’s memory.