From its dramatic opening in which a trader lies dying in a tent while his caravan continues on to Jericho without him, to the confusing days following the death of Jesus, Crace's novel of forty days' "quarantine" in the wilderness startles, fascinates, and ultimately haunts. Readers who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible may be offended by the premise and plot of this novel, in which Jesus and four other pilgrims seek spiritual enlightenment in separate caves in the bleak wilderness. Each, including Jesus, faces personal demons as s/he wrestles with solitude, starvation, and thirst. For those who regard events in the New Testament as symbolic, rather than literal, the novel offers a surprising new way of experiencing and interpreting the trials in the wilderness, the death and burial of Jesus, and ultimately the influence of Jesus on succeeding generations.
Crace's descriptions of the natural world are breathtaking. Using vivid verbs, musical cadences, unique metaphors, and acutely perceived observations about man, nature, and the spirit, he brings the wilderness into sharp focus, often personifying nature and its creatures without a trace of romanticism. "The clouds came down to sniff the hills, to scratch their bellies on the thorns," "Clouds and lightning moved away, banging on their shields," and sounds of wind that "could be mistaken for the vast percussion of the storm-pressed, canvas billows of a ship" are among the hundreds of vibrant and unique images which bring nature to life and illustrate man's closeness to it. With a similar focus on men as humans within nature and the wilderness, he attempts to recreate the quarantine experience and man's desire to connect with a higher power. Jesus, like the other pilgrims, is human here, a man rooted in the real world of his day and subject to the same urges as other men. He is different from them, however, in his determination not to yield to privation as he seeks union with God through his visions and hallucinations.
This is not a book that will appeal to everyone. Though Crace's purpose is not to debunk, he does challenge our understanding of what happened between the forty days in the wilderness and the resurrection and its significance. The language is stunning, the characters are fascinating, the imagery is unique, and the power of nature is overwhelming--but one's enjoyment of the book ultimately depends on one's willingness to consider alternative interpretations of some of the basic tenets of Christianity. Mary Whipple
on 5 June 2001
If there are writers more protean than Jim Crace, novelists more determined than he not ever to write the same kind of book twice, they keep well hidden. Crace's previous novels had settings as varied as these: prehistoric earth (The Gift of Stones), metropolitan Britain a few years in the future (Arcadia), and Cornwall in the 19th Century (Signals of Distress). Lest we should see a pattern developing, he has gone hiking and this, his fifth novel and already something of a modern classic, takes place in Judea, two thousand years ago. The hero is called Jesus. He is from Galilee. He is a carpenter by trade. How original.
Words lose their meanings and I suppose it is a sad reflection on the times to note that for most people now the word 'quarantine' conjures up the image of six months of doggy hell; or, just possibly, the director of Pulp Fiction. The founding meaning is gone to most, but the book reminds us that quarantine originally meant a period of 40 days and nights alone, often fasting, done with the aim of achieving some personal or spiritual goal. (The duration alone is retained in the French 'quarante'.) The supporting characters in Crace's novel are four people pursuing such a quarantine in search of relief for their respective problems ("madness, madness, cancer, infertility"). The fifth is Jesus, a young man of zealous disposition. The other four will break their fast every night: a sign that they don't really believe that god will provide for them, let alone that he will cure their maladies. Jesus is different:
"His quarantine would be achieved without the comforts and temptations of clothing, food and water. He'd put his trust in god, as young men do. He would encounter god or die, that was the nose and tail of it. That's why he'd come. To talk directly to his god. To let his god provide the water and the food. Or let the devil do its work. It would be a test for all three of them."
In a lesser novel, this could become the central concern: "Does Jesus live or die?" (Forty days? No food or water? What do you think?) But Crace deals the story more skilfully, by making Jesus only a little more prominent than the other quarantiners. The true central characters are a travelling salesman, Musa, and his wife Miri. Musa is a tough man and a cruel husband, whose reputation precedes him as he lies dying of fever on the novel's first page. When Miri goes off, with rather too much haste, to dig a grave for Musa, Jesus encounters him and he mysteriously recovers.
Musa's subsequent faith in Jesus - he becomes obsessed with "the little Gally" - is matched only by his faith in himself. The scenery is littered with caves where the quarantiners stay, and Musa wastes no time in making them believe that he owns the land. He extracts rent from the afflicted four with no difficulty. Musa comes to resemble God. He fails to abide by the rules he himself sets. His vengeance is arbitrary. His power over the others rests mostly in reputation, unfulfillable threats and his forbidding appearance: at the same time he has a ridiculous unmanly voice, and his vast weight means that he cannot get up without help from someone else. He is a God, like all the others, who requires his believers for survival. But Musa is a second-rate deity, the Alan Partridge (if you will) of the first century AD: he is torn between abusing those weaker than himself and becoming obsessively worshipful of anyone in whom he detects power. Jesus becomes the object of his fascination, and it is not long into the novel when Musa (and so the others) start thinking of him as a 'healer'. The implication as the novel ends is that from the mouths of these half-dozen wanderers will be born the rudiments of Christianity. The crucial point Crace makes is that whatever Jesus actually does is not relevant... Religion, the novel seems to say, is based on belief not reason. As such it is beyond logical attack or defence.
But the underlying themes are not half the pleasures of "Quarantine". The surface is divertingly beautiful. As ever Crace makes the scene and land his own, and the cruel Judean desert becomes vivid and full of character:- "This was the wind on which to fly away. Its gusts and blusters came looking for him in the cave, bursting in like rowdy boys to shake him from unconsciousness." "The salty scrubland was a lazy and malicious host. Even lizards lifted their legs for fear of touching it too firmly." (This is the language which earlier reviews found "shallow and uninspiring.") Crace also is adept at firm characterisation, and when literary fiction suffers a dearth of really villainous characters it is a relief to have Musa, whose unremitting wrongdoing is perversely admirable.
So broad is Crace's skill, that the reader feels that the whole book could be driven by any one of the factors alone: setting, plot, characters, themes. That he manages to sustain them all at once is (not literally) miraculous. Crace may not think much of religion but he has the gift of the greatest creators of legends: he makes you believe.
on 24 May 2010
Someone recently chose this book for our book club after complaints that we had had too many 'chick flick/easy reads' for some time. It proved to be a massive success more due to the discussions it brought on. It is a brave theme the author has chosen and it brought on much debating on the 'myth', as some chose to view it, of Christ and how 'legends' in general can be born. However, it is not a religious book #for those who were concerned that it is and perhaps not for them# or anti-religious either - Jesus is just one of the folk along with other memorable characters who are on this 'pilgrimage'. All agreed, even if it was not really the type of novel they normally enjoy, that it was beautifully, descriptively and in some ways hallucigenically written. You can feel and breath the heat and aromas of the area - such is the power of Crace's decription. The ending is vague but we all agreed it would be hard to finish it any other way. It is also surprisingly easy to read. It is a book you will never forget and would possibly go back to even if just to re-read some of the stunning description.
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.
on 10 May 2009
As a Christian I was not offended at the idea of writing a book about Jesus despite what others may think. I bought this in my first year of university, I read the first page and nodded off. I thought it boring; yet it stayed on my bookshelf until year 4 when I blew away the dust and immersed myself. I'm glad I did. It was truly marvelous, the language and writing style I thought wonderful. I would highly recommend this book to everyone eventhough I know, even for personal experience, that it is not for everyone. All I can say is, if you buy it, read a bit and not like it, keep it on your bookshelf and wait; you will read it someday and hopefully find it as wonderful as I did. Bring on the next one by Jim!
on 19 December 2002
Quarantine is a novel of Christ's forty-day sojourn in the wilderness in which He was tempted by Satan. It resembles a fable in its construction. This tale was first told in the Bible, in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, and Matthew. Milton based Paradise Regained on Christ and His temptation. Crace's Jesus, however, is someone far different.
In Quarantine, Christ seems to be more of an unlearned carpenter than someone divine; someone whose parents have reprimanded Him for His habit of piety and who has fled to the desert of Judea in a search for God and truth.
Christ is not alone in the Judean wilderness; there are other quarantiners, each with his own purpose and each on his own quest. Some are determined to be cured of blindness or barrenness, while others are simply searching. Jesus chooses one of the most uncomfortable caves in the area in which to spend His forty days, and He is determined to spend them without food or water. In contrast, the wealthy merchant Musa, though suffering from an apparently terminal illness, spends his day with his pregnant wife in a lavish tent.
Crace, a master at integrating his setting into the very fabric of his story, describes the desert in minute detail. This detail, which covers the flora and the fauna, the geography and the geology, is so minute, however, that many readers, (I was one) will need to keep a dictionary handy. If there are words you can't find, don't worry; this is Jim Crace writing and, just as in Being Dead, another five-star novel, words, and worlds, often exist only in the author's imagination. And ours.
The story continues along the lines of a classic fable, but we feel as though we are lost in a dreamworld, in a hallucination perhaps, as the characters of Musa, his wife Miri, and her contemplative friend, Marta become symbols for the Biblical story with which most of us are familiar.
Crace is a writer's writer, a true original, and this book, like his others, is never predictable. This is an author who is strange, creative and original, but always wonderful. Never a political writer, Crace is more concerned with giving us a world within a world, with detailing the landscape and the culture. In Quarantine, there is the almost obsessive description of the desert; in Arcadia, it was a produce market; in Signals of Distress, nautical matters and life in an early Victorian seaport; in Being Dead, it was, of course, death. Or rather, the process of death.
Crace eschews political and topical themes and instead focuses his attention on the beginnings and endings of lives and of worlds: the remnants of the stone people, the dispossessed greengrocers, the quarantined. He writes with what Iris Murdoch calls "crystalline" construction; a novel that is really more like a poem, introspective and artistic and thematic. He very much resembles William Golding and Signals of Distress is very reminiscent of Golding's novel, The Spire.
Crace is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. But for those looking for something a little different, something that will make them think, something that is quietly profound, Crace may be just perfect.
on 27 September 2014
Jim Crace is certainly a powerful writer but some readers might find his intensity a bit hard going.
The very titles of his novels, such as "Being Dead", "Continent", "The Gift of Stones" and this one, "Quarantine", let you know almost immediately not to expect light fiction.
I found "Being Dead" - which described a murder and the immediate aftermath - interesting although a bit methodical and the same goes for "Quarantine".
It portrays a group of characters trapped in the desert in Israel 2,000 years ago.
One of them goes by the name of Jesus from Galilee and is searching for God in the wilderness.
He and the others - a grasping merchant and his pregnant wife, various would-be hermits, including a woman who may be barren and is desperate for a child - face their problems against a harsh landscape of rocks and stone under a merciless sun, fearful of poisonous snakes, scorpions and that most dangerous of all beasts, their fellow man.
Crace fans might like it but I'm not so sure about others.
Not quite an everyday story in the lives of ordinary first century AD Jewish folk - but, as we are led to believe that quarantine is not unusual for the times - not far off! With only slightly more characters than you can count on the fingers of one hand and 250 or so pages in which to do it you'd think that it would be reasonable to expect rounded portraits instead of the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs presented before us. In the few pages devoted to Him, even Christ is personified as little more than a confused and, possibly, deluded youth with nothing more ambitious on his mind than impressing his parents and the village elders! The whole thing is just Albert Square in loincloths and sandals with a hint of Thelma and Louise - but with far less character development and much less interesting! The fact that this book was the Whitbread Novel of the Year says more about, either the scandalously narrow-minded judges or the shocking paucity of truly worthy writing than anything about the quality of this tawdry and mean-spirited little affair.
on 16 June 2011
This is a haunting re-imagining of the Gospels' account of the trials of Christ in the wilderness. Crace has a magical way with character and atmosphere. The wilderness is rendered vividly and becomes a character in itself - hot, oppressive, but also mystical and menacing. The encounters between the sadistic salesman Musa and the other travellers are particularly gripping and unsettling.
For me, the most effective aspect of the novel was the Christ character - his presence seems to permeate every page, even when the narrative is focussed elsewhere. The depictions of his childhood, the early blossoming of his faith, his relationships with his disapproving synagogue and family, and best of all his prayer-life, are particularly moving and seem totally in keeping with the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels.
I initially thought the denouement was a bit of a cop-out, a clever literary dodge to sidestep the question of Christ's identity. But after finishing this novel, it is the ending that stays with me most - strange, sad and beautiful all at once, much like the rest of this book.
on 31 August 2013
I stuck with this book based on the excellent endorsements on the cover. There is no doubting that Crace is a master when it comes to describing even the most mundane. I found myself skipping some of the vivid detail in search of some substance. I am left with the impression that the main objective of Quarantine is to showcase Crace's descriptive aptitude, this, in my opinion is at the expense of a narrative that keeps the reader engaged. There was enough about the nature of the 40 day fast to make this a worthwhile read for me, but the ending, although it will please many, was a bit flat and anti-climatic.