“I also ought to thank the people of...” That’s how the acknowledgments to Jim Crace’s new novel end, mid-sentence at the foot of the page, as if in error. Although this is the kind of game Crace has played ever since his 1986 debut, Continent, which fabricated an epigraph from “the Histories of Pycletius”, no one imagined he was joking when he noted in his acknowledgments to his last novel, 2013’s Booker-shortlisted Harvest, that he had “enjoyed a fortunate career in books and publishing” – an ominously solemn observation that sounded (as interviews confirmed) a lot like goodbye.
Well, maybe Crace played us yet again, because here he is once more, on typically strange, slippery form. It starts when the concert singer Alfred Busi is attacked by a mysterious nocturnal scavenger rummaging in the larder of the seaside villa that has been his home for seven decades. Nursing a nasty bite to his hand, as well as the pungent memory of his assailant’s potato-like odour, he turns for help – in the absence of his late wife – to his sister-in-law, Terina, who once gave him an evening to remember and still inspires chaste fantasy. He’s less keen to talk to his nephew, a timber tycoon whose plan to gentrify the area finds a handy catalyst in the ensuing newspaper gossip about the scary beast-like hominids lurking in the nearby woodland.
The Melody’s dust jacket promises high drama, with a strapline (lifted from the text) about “a rumour... as true as it was brutal”. Really Busi’s late-night encounter heralds a delicate meditation on grief, creativity and – less predictably – poverty, as his story dovetails with the fate of the shadowy locals of “the bosk”, feared, othered and ultimately wiped out for the sake of greed.
The first-person narrator, taking his sweet time to reveal himself, records Busi’s thoughts in retrospect, addressing us like we’re part of the locale, recalling events in our collective memory. As ever, Crace doesn’t let us develop a simple picture of where or when this is happening. It isn’t just that he withholds detail; his tricky use of tense and mood makes temporal uncertainty intrinsic. At one point Busi has a dream (which, we’re told, “he would be retelling” in “less than an hour”) about concert-goers “elated by the music they had heard” at one of his future performances – “if, indeed, the famous singer had shown up”.
For all that this sort of thing keeps you on your toes, The Melody sometimes threatens to become (almost literally) a shaggy dog story, with the novel’s central conflict between profit and justice settled offstage rather than in the hinted-at grandstand finish. Yet the book retains a lingering power – not least in Crace’s gentle reminder that, although the personal may well be political, it’s often easier to pretend otherwise.
• The Melody by Jim Crace is published by Picador (£16.99). To order a copy for £12.99 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99