(Wrote this on a train on Sunday, forgot to upload it:)
As is perhaps clear, my recent reading has become broadly thematic – two or three books of one kind, then two or three books of another. This week, it was the turn of contemporary fiction rooted in retellings and reimaginings of events from the Gospels. This is a topic I am particularly interested in, as I have a long term project on the go that falls exactly into this remit.
Jim Crace’s Quarantine takes as its base Jesus’ forty day fast in the wilderness, and crafts from this story of penitence, spiritual obsession and defeat of temptation a fresh narrative, partly thanks to the original characters he surrounds the famous plot with.
Jesus is not tempted here by a fire and brimstone, literal, devil, but instead by Musa, a vile, charming, violent, horny, opportunistic merchant who is seemingingly healed from the brink of death by Jesus himself at the opening of the novel. Musa assumes control and claims ownership of the stretch of caves where Jesus and several other penitents have taken themselves to commune with god. Musa steals, cajoles, assaults and insults these people, and Crace impressively invokes five sufficiently different characters all undertaking the same spiritual quest, each one of which has been ruined by the presence of Musa.
The writing is strong, I suppose. It is often lyrical, poetic, and the third person voice floats between the point of view of Musa, his pregnant wife, Jesus and the four others out in the wilderness. For me, this was perhaps a few too many characters to get to know that well in a novel of this length (only about 240 pages), and Crace regularly shifts his viewpoint in the middle of chapters, often just for a paragraph. Whilst the sections that keep a strong, centred voice work well – each perspective well crafted – these changes happen so frequently that, for me, they are often a little jarring.
But descriptions of place, motives, moods and physicality (the effects of fasting, the violence of Musa, the preparation of meat) are strong and very evocative, and my only real criticism of the text is that its too-frequent alterations of voice make things a little blurry. Though maybe this is my fault, not quite engaging with the novel properly, not being able to hold enough conflicting voices in my head at a time.
But it’s a strong, interesting and well-written piece, successfully offering the kind of literary spin on Biblical material that I am looking to do too/copy/rip off/whatever.
Not bad, but not as powerful as Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, and I think that is because of the lack of focus on a particular character’s mind. A lesson learnt, here, creative writers…
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