There is a vague, marshy border between poetry and prose. Marshy, as in rich with life, rich with the intermingling of earth and water and sunlight, crawling things, buzzing, flitting, sounds moist and dry on the breeze.
This is where you find Jim Crace’s 1986 book “Continent.”
It’s at the boundary in another way. It is comprised of seven short stories that, together, form a elliptical novel.
• Lowdo, a rural boy at the University, ambivalent about his father and his father’s herd of freemartins, half-male/half-female cows whose “milk” is eagerly sought as an aphrodisiac.
• A mistakenly arrested “political” prisoner, his retarded sister and the soldier for whom she had an unswerving affection.
• The teacher from the city who jogs and is challenged to a race by the local horseman hero.
• An elderly daughter trying to tease out the meaning of her anthropologist father, her cold and clever mother and a long-ago native tribe where fertile females were in heat only once a year — and all at the same time.
• A aged calligrapher who, at the end of his life, becomes the darling of art collectors in faraway America and draws the attention of government ministers.
• The remote village where a busybody takes credit for getting the government to agree to bring electricity in and then goes to great length to prepare for the moment the switch is turned on.
• A lonely, insomnia-wracked, increasingly crazy company agent in cabin on a mountaintop, sifting through stones for valuable ore.
Any of these could have been a novel by itself. Together, they are like snapshots placed at various points in a map, specific to a spot but also evocative of the empty spaces.
Indeed, this is a novel about empty spaces. Not just the empty spaces between the stories, and the empty spaces within the stories.
But, even more, about the empty spaces in life. We know little about any one, any thing. We know precious little about ourselves.
Reading this book, the reader recognizes the piecemeal nature of experience. The glimpses, glances and startlements that provide the only flashes of light enabling us to see, each of us, our own inner maps — however incompletely perceived and understood.
Patrick T. Reardon