No 323 Quarantine by Jim Crace

With each of his novels, Jim Crace builds distinct worlds that are remote, both in time and in setting. In Quarantine, he transports the reader to the Judean desert 2,000 years ago, to retell the story of Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. Yet Jesus is not the centre of the story. Here he is one of five characters who have come to the desert for a lesson in self-castigation through a period of fasting and praying.

As the novel opens, Musa, a venal and violent merchant, has fallen ill with a fever while travelling. He has been abandoned by all of his party bar his pregnant put upon wife Miri, who is hoping he will die. As she digs a grave for him, four travellers arrive in the area on foot and claim some nearby caves for their period of ‘quarantine’ where they will fast and pray in isolation, all wishing for different things. Straggling behind them is a fifth traveller; a young man from Galilee called Jesus.

And this fifth one was bare-footed, and without a staff. No water-skin, or bag of clothes. No food. A slow, painstaking figure, made thin and watery by the rising mirage heat, as if someone had thrown a stone into the pool of air through which it walked and ripples had diluted it.

He comes across Musa’s tent and hoping for one last sip of water before his fast, goes inside and finds the dying man. He gives Musa a sip of water and miraculously, yet inadvertently, heals him, putting an end to Miri’s dreams of freedom. As Jesus runs off to a nearly inaccessible cave with no food or water, the resurrected Musa uses his second chance at life to take advantage of the opportunity to extract rent, and other benefits from the remaining four travellers. He is a man who can spot and exploit the weaknesses of others, yet he is aware that there is a special quality to Jesus and he is determined to speak to him again.

As the days pass and Musa rules over the other travellers, Jesus refuses to leave his cave, becoming weaker despite the offers of food and drink.

Angels left you calm of spirit when they stepped into your life. Devils left you troubled. Here was a devil then, sent to the wilderness, with death and fever as his friends, attended by four mad, unbelonging souls, to be adversaries to god. Jesus would not come out of the cave, no matter what they said, no matter what their slander was, no matter what they offered him. They’d come to tempt him from the precipice with their thin cries.

Jesus’s silent, determined strength only persuades Musa and the others that he has some kind of gift, but when a storm hits the desert after thirty days, the events that enfold will change all their lives.

Crace’s retelling of such a well-known story is wonderfully subtle and complex. His Jesus is a callow boy, with no clear divine origin and a frustrating innocence, whose overly pious nature is deplored by his parents. Musa is a fabulous creation, both hideous and cunning, yet with a sharp wit. He is a clear allegory for Satan, terrorising the other pilgrims, tempting Jesus and thinking only and always of himself. Yet it is Musa alone who recognises Jesus for what he is, and who will come to proselytise the most for the Messiah.

The desert setting is depicted in obsessive detail: the geography and geology of the area, its creatures and fauna, its beliefs and superstitions are all rendered in stunning prose and with an almost hallucinatory incantation.

The empty lands – these very caves, these paths, these desert pavements made of rock, these pebbled flats, these Badlands, and these unwatered river beds – were siblings to the empty spaces in the heart. Why else would scrubs have any holy visitors at all…unravelled from themselves by visions of a better and eternal world.

Within this vivid world, fantasies and fears are heightened and miracles seem to occur, but Crace is smart enough to leave room for interpretation, to see these events as possibly the result of hungry, fevered and hopeful imaginations.

In Quarantine, Crace may have fictionalised the events of those 40 days in the desert, but by doing so he has created a work of spiritual strength whose free indirect style taps into humanity’s varied experiences with religious faith. The precision of his writing and detail of the minutiae of life at the time gives the book a striking authority that makes it a genuinely unique work.

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

20 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve only read Crace’s Harvest but recall it having a very strong impact on me at the time. This sounds remarkably powerful too. He clearly has a talent for this type of book…


  2. This sounds wonderful! I’ve only read one Crace book several years ago now, but I loved his writing and I don’t know why I’ve allowed him to fall off my radar. Thanks for putting him back on!


  3. Fellow appreciators of Jim Crace! Hurrah! Love his books and your description of him building ‘distinct worlds’ is on the nose. A wonderful review that is seriously tempting me back to his work in spite of all the new titles that have somehow ended up on my wishlist.


    • I sometimes wonder why he isn’t mentioned in the same breath as writers like Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes, because he is as good as anyone writing today. I’m just glad I still have a lot of his back catalogue to explore!

      Liked by 1 person

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