"My father's right arm ended not in a hand but, at the elbow, in a bony swelling."
Opening line to The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace.
The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace takes place at the end of the stone age in a community of stone workers. The people of the village are divided into two groups: the stone cutters who spend their days in their workshops and the traders who run the market place and become wealthy by bartering with the many people who come to the village for the stone cutters excellent flint tools and weapons.
But The Gift of Stones is the story of an outsider, neither stone cutter or merchant. In his childhood the unnamed protagonist loses his arm after the village is attacked by horsemen. This is the most likely explanation, anyway. The protagonist is a story-teller, the creator of lies, who has told many different versions of how he lost his arm. The narrator is the story teller's daughter, and it is up to her to filter out what her father has made up to entertain his audience and earn his living and get to the truth of his story.
The protagonist grows up without a mother or a father, raised by a stone cutter uncle who has a family of his own to care for and cannot be bothered with another mouth to feed. So the protagonist is left to his own devices. No one believes a one-armed man can cut stone, so he is never trained to do any work at all. His uncle feeds him until he is grown and does not really notice when he wonders off from the village one day.
The protagonist walks to the sea where he finds a widow named Doe and her daughter. Doe has lost her husband and her sons and now makes her living from the land around her and from what she can get from the men who pass by her hut in exchange for a few minutes in the tall grass. The protagonist befriends Doe and takes her back to his village. He becomes close to the daughter who eventually comes to think of him as her true father. It is she who narrates the novel through her own narrative voice and through repeating the tales her father told her.
The Gift of Stones can be enjoyed as a historical novel or adventure tale but it can also be read on a much deeper level. The narrator doesn't just give us one version of the events, the one she thinks is true, she tells us the many different version her father, the storyteller, told. So many version of the same story begin to reveal much about the teller and about the nature of stories. Why make something up when the facts are known to both teller and audience? Why does the audience enjoy the version they know to be false so much more than the version they know to be true? Is the story teller responsible to the truth or to his audience? The protagonist tells his stories in exchange for food, they are the goods he brings to the market place. How does this commodification of his stories affect the way he tells them? Even in the stone age, the story teller has to be aware of what his audience brings to the tale. His daughter on the other hand, can narrate the story any way she chooses. Or can she? How do the issues that affected her father affect her? How do they affect the author?
I find these issues fascinating as you can probably guess. If you find them annoying, don't worry. You can read The Gift of Stones as a straightforward historical narrative and find much to enjoy. The presentation of life in the stone age is interesting throughout the novel. Showing us a village at the end of the stone age makes it possible for Mr. Crace to present what happens to stone cutters once bronze tools arrive on the scene. I'm giving The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace five out of five stars.