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Jim Crace’s second novel is set in a Stone Age village at the beginning of the Bronze Age. Famous far and wide for possessing ‘the gift of stones’ – that is, the ability to work stone into tools of exquisite quality – the village has become a target for marauders, who wound a young boy in the arm. To save the boy’s life, the arm must be amputated, using a knife specially crafted for the purpose.

But a man with only half an arm is no use as a stonecutter. The boy grows up to become a different sort of artisan – a story-teller, who can ‘make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place’. The discovery of bronze threatens the villagers’ traditional way of life, and the village goes into decline. One world has indeed disappeared; the question of what will take its place is left open.

Discussion: salute the liars

The Gift of Stones confirmed Crace’s status as a writer of great originality and skill. Writing in the New York Times (July 16, 1989), Jane Smiley called it ‘a modern poem…a work to be read and savoured, full of thought, but also full of the concrete world’. The Gift of Stones won the GAP International Prize for Literature. 

The stories of Continent, Crace’s first book, dealt with the emotional and spiritual response of people living in a traditional society to ‘progress’. Crace’s sensitivity to the impact of change on ‘ordinary’ individuals and the unequal struggle between tradition and progress is again evident in The Gift of Stones. However, in his second book Crace concentrates more tightly on work. The craftsmen, indeed all the villagers, depend entirely on stone for their livelihood, their sense of self-worth and their place in the world. But the coming of the new technology of bronze spells obsolescence for the villagers. Ill-equipped to grapple with thoughts of what the new world may bring, they dwell instead on the mystery of origins:

‘There was a question that they asked amongst themselves. The question was, Who found this out and why? Who first thought to mine for copper, tin, to measure it in hands and thumbs, to charge it in a pit with charcoal, to pour it in a mould? With what in mind? And why? It was quite clear how the first knappers got to work. You only need to throw a stone to see it break and view the sinews and the flesh within. An idle child with nothing else to do would soon find out that flint was sharp and hard. But bronze? It made no sense.’

Discussing the origins of The Gift of Stones, Crace told an interviewer: ‘I was very interested in what would happen to a community based on work which was suddenly separated from that certainty…[the villagers] would never imagine that the world could ever do without stone, and then of course the moment of metal comes.’ Transitional moments in the life of a community rooted in a work were to occupy Crace in his next two novels as well, Arcadia and Signals of Distress.

The main character of The Gift of Stones is not, however, a stone-cutter but a boy literally ‘cut off’ from the community’s traditional source of income and prestige – a boy who has lost his arm as a result of an attack on the village, and is therefore unfit for the painstaking and delicate craft of carving stone. Desperate to forge a place for himself in the community, equally determined to follow his own promptings, the boy becomes, first, something of an explorer, witnessing extraordinary sights like a ship on the distant sea, and then, when he subsequently retails his discoveries to the village, a story-teller. What are the villagers to make of his tales? Where does the world come from that he creates in words? Like the first person to ‘mine for copper, tin…to charge it in a pit with charcoal’, the story-teller is an innovator with seemingly magical powers.

As the villagers begin to search for a new future, the story-teller’s role takes on ambiguous proportions. Memorialist of the old dispensation, the story-teller is at the same time the only person with experience of voyaging in the unknown. Can he lead his people into the new age?

‘Salute the liars…they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.’

‘What is indispensable for the birth of storytelling is the clash between two antagonistic forces (two opposing worlds)…the subject who suffers the outcome…and who is sensitive enough to realise its significance, that is the storyteller.’ To read Karoly Rozsa’s paper on The Gift of Stones, click here.

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