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Children of Paradise Paperback – 6 Feb 2014

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 29 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Oddly sterile story inspired by Jim Jones's People's Temple 2 Nov 2013
By kacunnin - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Fred D'Aguiar's CHILDREN OF PARADISE is, at first glance, a rather sterile novel, especially considering the emotional context of the story it tells. Set in Guyana in 1978, the novel traces the final days of Jim Jones's quasi-religious cult, the People's Temple, told from several disparate viewpoints (including that of a caged gorilla who bears witness to some of the unfolding action). I have vivid memories of the horror that Jones wrought, inducing his nearly one thousand followers (including many young children) to poison themselves in an attempt to find paradise. The photographs taken at the scene, many of which graced the covers of Newsmagazines back in November of 1978, are forever etched in my memory - people lined up beside each other, one after the other, seemingly acres of them, all dead and gone.

D'Aguiar's story focuses mainly on a woman named Joyce and her ten-year-old daughter Trina. Joyce was a follower of the charismatic Reverend (called "Father" here, but never Jim Jones), leaving California with her daughter to start a new life in the jungles of Guyana. In the compound there are strict rules enforced by armed guards and prefects. Those caught breaking the rules are beaten, or worse. When Trina gets too close to the cage housing the compound's gorilla (called Adam), she is apparently killed. But Father brings her back to life in front of his gathered congregation, using her "resurrection" as a means of further indoctrinating his flock and cementing their allegiance to him and his madness. If you know what happened at Jonestown, you'll know how this story ends. But D'Aguiar isn't as interested in the details of this tragedy; instead he focuses on Trina's emerging awareness of the reality of her world, her connection (is it spiritual or metaphysical?) with Adam, and our human ability to transcend horror to find solace in each other.

This is not an easy novel to read. D'Aguiar's style is distinctly poetic, with a sense of magic realism in his portrayal of Adam, Trina's spirituality, and Joyce's attraction to a boat captain who tells stories of Anansi the spider. It's all very slow and mesmerizing, the language lulling the reader into a false sense of security. We know what's coming; we even know how it will happen. But we find ourselves with Trina on her magic boat rather than in that compound as the Kool-Aid is being ladled out. At the same time, we feel miles away from all of it, distanced by the present tense narration, the poetic phrasing, and the odd sterility of the action.

While I recognize the beauty of D'Aguiar's writing, I can't say I was gripped by his prose or the story he tells. I never really understood Father's control over his followers - why did they follow him? Why did they trust him? And why did they willingly go to their deaths for him, sacrificing their lives and the lives of their children? These things are not part of this novel. There is no attempt to unravel this man's madness, or what it is that drives so many of us to look for salvation in self-proclaimed emissaries of God. And I found myself wanting that, needing it even. Read CHILDREN OF PARADISE for the poetry, or for Trina, or for the gorilla Adam, who seems more human than his captors. Just be prepared to feel a bit empty when it's all over.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Paradise or a gilded cage? 28 Jan 2014
By E. M. Bristol - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Children of Paradise," by Fred D'Aguiar is a novelization of the Jonestown tragedy set in Guyana in 1978. Because it opens with a named individual - Adam - in a cage behaving in a rather human-like manner, I wondered if it was an actual person, but no, it's a gorilla, from whose perspective much of the story is told. This is noteworthy because so few characters - all human - in the book are given names, and most who are, receive little character development. Though there are endless descriptions of the landscape, so that it's easy to visualize, when it comes to the people, almost no physical characteristics are provided to help distinguish them. I'm sure some readers won't mind, but I personally found this frustrating.

The leader of the commune is referred to only as "the preacher" throughout the entire book, and other characters are merely "the president," etc. Even Captain Aubrey, who heads the riverboat which regularly transports commune supplies, is referred to only as "the captain," though he plays a key role. The other important characters are Joyce, a single mother and her ten-year-old daughter, Trina, who have both fled from the US to this strange and increasingly frightening place. Though young Trina, an imaginative and compassionate child with a gift for music, enjoys (for lack of a better term) favoritism from the preacher, the two are still subject to the commune's system of bizarre rules, lectures and punishments. As the book progresses, the preacher descends into mental illness, his drug- and alcohol fueled decisions causing more havoc than harmony, attracting the attention of the authorities and parents who are determined to retrieve their children, and each poor choice creates a chain effect that even a reader unfamiliar with the real-life tragedy will know is not going to end well.

Trina and Joyce are from the United States (and are part Native American), but the third person narrator seems to be British or European, given some of the word choices: biscuits, ginger beer, etc. This did not affect my rating or enjoyment of the book, just something I noticed while reading.

As noted by other reviewers, the book lacks speech tags, and the dialogue is presented in the third person (he says, she says) What speech there is, is often too short to convey any real sense of the individual speaking. Although much of the book's language and imagery is beautiful, I think the lack of dialogue made this book rather lifeless. The countryside came vividly alive for me; the characters did not.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Flat 24 Jan 2014
By Antigone Walsh - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Set during the last days of a Jonestown like compound, the story focuses on Joyce, her young daughter, Trina, and the compound's caged gorilla, Adam. Lead by Father, a reverend whose descent into madness and addiction has lead to a paranoid totalitarian state, the cult pits totally indoctrinated followers against dissenters and critics. Joyce finds herself in the suspect group and desperately seeks away out for her and Trina. Trina was knocked unconscious when she ventured too close to Adam's cage but her injury is exploited by the reverend who claims he brought her back from the dead. A boat captain offers Joyce hope of escape and love. But the reverend will tolerate no disloyalty.

This story was as oppressive as the jungle heat. The author's style, while lyrical, was flat emotionally and left me distanced from the characters. Adam's portrayal is the most vivid. Trina is a sweet little girl whose growing recognition of her plight leads to flights of imagination. Everything feels muted and slow, draining the little life there was from the pages. The author does not use quotation marks. Instead hyphens are used. I found this both annoying and pretentious. Sorely missing was the backstory which was needed to explain how and why these people gave away their power and squelched their most basic of instincts, that of survival and self preservation. The prose may be pretty but the story lacks vibrancy, heart and soul. Anyone familiar with the Jonestown massacre can skip this bloodless rendering. Pass.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Missing an essential ingredient 23 Jan 2014
By realnaynay - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Based on the Jim Jones cult, the book presents the story of an obsessed cult leader who tries to keep a 1000 member community under his complete control. Set in an isolated jungle, I would presume in Africa, since the leader has a "pet" gorilla that he keeps in a cage. The members of the cult are almost completely cut off from the outside world. Life is hard, even the children are expected to work, and food is always rationed and in short supply, except for the leader and his closest confidants.

The premise of the story was promising, but the book never really drew me into the story. Written in a rather impersonal style, the few characters that had the promise of becoming intriguing or endearing are only present in scattered, short parts of the book.

The Author frequently wrote in sentences that were a good paragraph long, which to me was a distraction from the story, and somewhat awkward to read.

Save your eyes, time, and money, and get something different to read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Brilliantly written, it's just that real life is more tragic 23 Jan 2014
By Nathan Webster - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Fred D'Aguiar has done as good a job fictionalizing the Jonestown suicides as I think could be done - and it's surprising that (to my knowledge) hasn't been done before.

His portrayal of "the preacher" is a surrealistic nightmare of what self-determined mania must look up close. I wouldn't even call him 'evil,' because his righteousness seems so assured. So I can imagine that for the residents of Jonestown compound, this is what Jim Jones probably acted like.

He does an equally good job portraying the paranoid nature of the camp, where children happily informed on parents, and everything was built around never questioning the preacher's demands or statements. In that environment, I can completely understand how even a huge group of trapped group members would suddenly find themselves on a one-way trip where murder and suicide were legitimate options. You'd be penned in with no other outlet.

D'Aguiar's poetic language is tight, controlled - not a word wasted. He uses a different quoting technique, so instead of quote marks, you get a dash. It takes a little getting used to, but not that long, and what it does is always keeps the focus on D'Aguiar's language and word choice, and doesn't take you into the story like quoted dialogue is. You always feel well-guided by D'Aguiar the author, rather than the characters. I know that sounds kind of weird, but it's a compliment.

A main character is an ape, and when I read that in the description, I was like, 'really?' But it works perfectly. Great idea, and well done.

I do agree with other reviewers that the backstory is never explored. While I can see why the tragedy happened once people were already present in the moment, there are no answers as to why they got there in the first place. It's alluded too, but not in a very vital way - and I don't think was ever D'Aguiar's intention. He clearly wants to stay in the moment. Still, I think this lack of backstory has an impact on my rating.

Why three stars, for a book I obviously appreciated? Because I was always thinking back to the true story and how it was more captivating, horrific and memorable in an awful way. It would be like fictionalizing 9/11 - most of us have memories of it, and all we do is refer to those memories when people start relating their own stories. I've done a lot of reading into Jonestown, and I feel like the real story is the one that matters, to the point where this fictional account doesn't measure up.

That's not D'Aguiar's fault - and he has done as good a job as I can imagine. So if you read my review and say "yeah, but I want a fictional story, not the real thing!" then I think you'll like the book. If you have more of a nonfiction sensibility, then you might agree more with me.
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