Signals Of Distress

Signals Of Distress

Book - 1995
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"Signals of Distress" tells the story of an American emigration vessel grounded off the coast of England in the 1830's. While the Belle of Wilmington waits to be refloated, the isolated community of Wherrytown offers what hospitality it can to the crew, but the Americans prove to be a disturbing presence. A brilliantly imagined historical fiction about emigration, dislocation, and the price of liberty, this novel confirms Crace's reputation as a writer who is gifted almost beyond belief.
Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995.
ISBN: 9780374263799
Characteristics: 275 p. ;,24 cm.


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Jul 26, 2018

Not sure how to rate this one; it started off well and the situation bore great promise. Crace's depiction of a seaside village, its local characters, their attitudes, modes of living and pursuits was masterful. Events such as the salvage of a grounded ship or the landing of a gigantic catch of pilchards (a.k.a. sardines), a task that required frenzied efforts of the entire population, were conveyed with a degree of color, detail and insight that demonstrated a remarkable depth of research. One cannot fail to be impressed at the writer's commitment to his topic.
Surely Crace's main protagonist Aymer Smith was a peculiar choice of characters upon whom to hang his story. He's the least prepossessing of men: a dreamer, constantly out of step with everyone around him. Loquacious, opinionated, impractical, socially inept, he succeeds in annoying natural allies and foes alike. Everywhere he goes he's a fish out of water. Unable to accomplish any of the shakily conceived goals he sets for himself, he resorts to wishful thinking and idle speculation.
The story revolves around a cultural clash when the boisterous American crew of a shipwrecked vessel, accompanied by an African slave are set loose upon a primitive fishing community on the shore of England in 1836. Into this mix is thrust the well-meaning but clumsy Aymer Smith and his humanistic dreams of social betterment. Clearly, this is unlikely to end well and toward the end, the narrative begins to falter, drift and fade into irrelevancy (surely a metaphor for Smith himself).
I was left with a sense that once all the players -- the sailors, the locals, the young lovers and Smith himself -- have gone their separate ways, Crace was left with a dilemma of what to do with them, how to bring the story to a completion.
To sum up: a great concept, a unique setting brilliantly portrayed but in the end, not very satisfying. I was reminded of the final scene in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, the fool's mournful lament at the suffering of the Russian people; after all the sound and fury is over, everyone still living finds himself more or less back where he started.


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