Being Dead by Jim Crace
I avoided this book when it came out. Morbid. Icky. Or so the reviews I read suggested. But when it was chosen for a book group I belong to I bought it. This one is not to be missed.
A couple in their 50ies, both with academic degrees in zoology take a Tuesday off to drive to an isolated beach which happens to be the place where they first met 30 years before. He wants to make love on the beach. She’s less motivated but warms to his interest. Then they’re attacked by an unknown assailant who bashes them with a piece of granite, robs them and makes off with their car. The book is not a murder mystery and the reader never focuses on the search for the killer. Rather the focus is on the dead, on how they die and how long it takes and what happens to their bodies in the 6 days before they are found.
There’s also the backstory: how Joseph and Celice met at a “study house” on that beach with 4 other graduate students. They were the odd ones out. Three of the four men went immediately to a bar to look for women; after flirting unsuccessfully with the other woman who was very pretty. Celice is too tall and too forward to be “conventionally attractive”. Joseph is too short and too shy. We see glimpses of their subsequent life, not fairy tale happy but a good life.
The daughter, Syl, consciously unacademic and striving to be different from her parents, is responsible finally for finding the bodies. She quits her waitress job in a distant city, goes home expecting a simple explanation but, increasingly numb, goes through the motions of contacting hospitals, morgues, the police.
Part of the backstory, though, is of the beach, how it’s changed since their student days (and how change is part of the natural order), how it’s shortly going to be fenced off as part of a private high end development, how the grass and sand and bugs and birds react to the bodies. It’s a paean to the biological principles that have guided Joseph and Celice’s lives.
The image of Joseph reaching for Celice's foot as he dies is a powerful one. It affects even their daughter who is rebellious and skeptical about human relationships and ultimately as the bodies are moved (into coffins that don't fit because the powers that be assumed a man's body needed a longer one and a woman a shorter one), it's sad that conventional treatment of the dead separates them and takes them out of the realm of nature which had been their lives.