Utterly captivating from start to finish, this is the tale of four travellers - and a mysterious fifth - who arrive in the Judaean wilderness in search variously of spiritual inspiration and solace. But the wilderness already harbours the cruel and sadistic merchant Musa and his downtrodden wife Miri, abandoned by their merchant companions: for Musa is sick, apparently close to death. But then the mysterious fifth pilgrim (Jesus) almost unwittingly heals him; and for the others, this is not good news.
The reinvigorated Musa, though clearly intrigued by Jesus, tyrannises the travellers, all of them intent on spending forty days - a quarantine - amidst the rocks and scrub of this desert place. Throughout their various trials, mostly of Musa's making, Jesus remains an unseen presence and influence, a source of vaguely-sensed hope and expectation. In a surprising, marvellously hallucinatory and ambiguous ending, a windstorm/the Spirit of Jesus/the travellers' own yearnings and longings give rise to surprising inner transformations, and lives are changed. As Musa himself finally descends from the wilderness, there is the merest hint that the encounter, and the wilderness itself, may have tempered in some small degree even his rapacious, cruel and greedy nature.
Among the many impressive facets of Crace's work is the power of his descriptive writing: the harshest of environments is at times conjured up with a beauty that almost aches. But it functions, too, almost as a personality in its own right, as a shaper of character and spirit, so that it becomes impossible to say where the travellers' various responses to Jesus are objective spiritual encounter or subjective state of mind imposed by their interaction with the environment. This makes for an incredibly resonant, layered and suggestive read, capable of satisfying on all sorts of levels at once.