Quarantine comes much lauded. It was Booker shortlisted. It ticks the “controversial” box, dealing with an episode of the life of Christ.
Sometimes, when reading the Bible, one is tempted to ask: how would that work, then? What would that actually have looked like? There are few clues in the Bible; there is almost no characterisation; events are set out in a very skeletal fashion and there is little sense of what make people tick. So, when Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days, what did that actually mean?
In Quarantine, it seems that this 40 days in the wilderness is a fairly common rite of passage or penance. There is a conveyor belt of pilgrims ready to take the place of their predecessors, living in caves and living on whatever small creatures come their way. This particular batch of pilgrims have different motives for coming to the desert: variously they hope for fertility, cure from illness or spiritual enlightenment. Oh, and one of them was Jesus.
The pilgrims have the dubious fortune to run into a merchant, Musa, who had fallen sick and was left for dead by his caravan as they headed on to Jericho. Following a visit from Jesus, and to the disappointment of his long-suffering wife, Musa recovers. Musa then provides much of the narrative drive as he seeks to exploit the pilgrims and, in particular, to forge a link with Jesus that might enable them both to become very rich.
Quarantine differs from the Biblical story in its inclusion of other people; and these other people form a human representation of temptation. Jesus is frail, uncertain, desperate. He has a strong faith but he doesn’t know where it comes from. He seems always to have been a bit of a square peg in a round hole, and he hopes his time in the desert will provide answers.
There is ambiguity in Jim Crace’s narrative. It is not clear whether Jesus does perform miracles or whether routine customs are misinterpreted. It is not clear whether Jesus is god (Crace uses a small g), or whether he is simply searching for god. The ending, in particular, is opaque and whilst it might seem profound to start with, it will probably frustrate readers.
The writing is top quality. Crace uses humour, irony, pathos. He uses mundane language to describe the miraculous and colourful language to describe the mundane. Some of the set pieces are brilliantly conceived, and the relationships between the characters are carefully thought through. But after a while, it all feels a bit unvarying. We have got the basic idea; we understand what the desert looks and feels like; we know Jesus and Musa. There’s not much more to say. But Crace presses ahead and says it anyway. Like the desert, it ends up feeling rather slow and very arid.
- Hardcover: 242 pages
- Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux; American ed edition (1 April 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374239622
- ISBN-13: 978-0374239626
- Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 2.6 x 23.7 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 544 g
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