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Posted January 1, 2002
A Fable Wrapped in a Novel
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.
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Posted February 23, 2011
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