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A re-imagining of the forty days Christ spent in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Judea, about two thousand years ago: There were five of them - not in a group, but strung out along the road where earlier that morning the caravan of uncles had passed by. Three men, a woman, and, too far behind for anyone to guess its gender, a fifth. And this fifth was barefoot, and without a staff. No water-skin, or bag of clothes. No food. A slow, painstaking figure, made thin and watery by the rising, mirage heat, as...
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A re-imagining of the forty days Christ spent in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Judea, about two thousand years ago: There were five of them - not in a group, but strung out along the road where earlier that morning the caravan of uncles had passed by. Three men, a woman, and, too far behind for anyone to guess its gender, a fifth. And this fifth was barefoot, and without a staff. No water-skin, or bag of clothes. No food. A slow, painstaking figure, made thin and watery by the rising, mirage heat, as if someone had thrown a stone into the pool of air through which it walked and ripples had diluted it.
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Editorial Reviews

Richard Eder
Engaging...magical...There is wit and meat in every detail....Crace's portrait of Jesus is audacious and disconcerting. —Los Angeles Times
USA Today
A spiritual mystery of the best kind...the creation of an ambitious imagination...a literary miracle.
Bruce Bawer
Immensely impressive...This novel is a high-wire acta tour de forcea garment expertly tailored from materials of the highest quality —Washington Post Book World
Wall Street Journal
Immensely enjoyable...Crace's vivid writing brings his clever take on the Bible to life.
Boston Book Review
A brilliantly imagined work.
Seattle Times
An incantory, compelling novel that stands beside Camus' The Stranger.
John Updike
Stunning...Crace is a writer of hallucinatory skill.
The New Yorker
Gary Kamiya

For a novelist, the figure of Jesus looms like Mount Everest: at once irresistible and daunting. To write about Jesus one must walk a shuddering tightrope between humanity and divinity. Only mystics, true believers or madmen would embark on that journey without trepidation.

The problem is that at some point the novelist must show his hand: either affirm the divinity of Jesus, in which case his work may feel like a penetrating illustration of the scriptures; or deny it, with the danger that his work may feel merely reactive. He can also, of course, blur the issue, avoid answering the question -- but this solution, too, rarely satisfies. Religion can't tolerate the same kind of ambiguity that literature does. Quarantine, by British novelist Jim Crace, is a tour de force of historical and psychological realism that offers an ingenious variation on a key episode in Christian myth -- but it does not entirely succeed in overcoming these problems.

With Quarantine, Crace -- whose earlier novels include Arcadia, Continent and Signals of Distress -- has joined the list of illustrious writers, including Dostoevski, Kazantzakis and Mailer, who have dared to tackle this blindingly unportrayable figure. While Kazantzakis, with passionate ambition, recounted Jesus' entire adult life as a second-to-second struggle between his Godhead and his humanity, and Mailer, in his embarrassingly prosaic first-person effort, covered everything from Jesus' childhood to his crucifixion, Crace has chosen to tell a much smaller story, and in a much more indirect way. In Quarantine, Jesus is just one of seven characters -- and not the central one. Crace's Jesus isn't as peripheral as Hamlet in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but Quarantine shares that work's intentionally eccentric perspective. This sidelong approach breathes fresh life into a story so vast and familiar it can barely be seen anymore -- but it also diminishes its scope. Quarantine is flawlessly executed, but it seems more like a short story than a novel.

Crace has chosen as his subject Jesus' 40-day "quarantine" in the wilderness, described in Matthew 4:1-11: "Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil." An agonizing trial in which he must fend off the three temptations offered by the devil, it is key moment in Jesus' life. Crace's original spin on the story is to focus not primarily on Jesus, t on six people who find themselves sharing the same barren stretch of mountains near the Dead Sea with him. Of these the most important is a loathsome character named Musa, a merchant who, along with his downtrodden, pregnant wife, Miri, has been traveling with a trading caravan through the wilderness.

Miri and Musa are joined in the wilderness by five people, each traveling alone, each undertaking a quarantine in hopes of miracles or enlightenment. The first is a bedouin or "badu," a strange, voiceless creature who seems little more than an animal. The second, Shim, is a cosmopolitan Gentile from the north, perhaps a Greek, who has come to the desert in search of some nameless wisdom. The third is an older Jew named Aphas, who is afflicted with a cancerous tumor in his side that is killing him. The fourth, Marta, is a childless married woman who has come to the desert in hopes that she will miraculously conceive. Her husband, in ccordance with Jewish law, has told her he will divorce her if she does not conceive by harvest.

"The fifth, a male, was far younger than he might have seemed from a distance," writes Crace. "Not much more than an adolescent, then ... He was a traveller called Jesus, from the cooler, farming valleys in the north, a Galilean, and not one used to deprivations of this kind ... 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."

When the story opens, Musa has been struck down by a fever and is near death. His fellow traders abandon him, taking his goods and leaving him with only a few goats, his money and Miri -- who prays for the death of the fat, brutal sensualist. In search of shelter and sustenance before his quarantine begins, Jesus is about to borrow some refreshment from Musa's apparently unoccupied tent when he hears a sound from Musa, who has briefly awakened from his fever sleep. He presses the "devil's air" out of the dying man's chest, shakes water over his face and says, "So, here, be well again" -- "a common greeting for the sick." Jesus leaves to begin his fast.

Jesus' simple act sets in motion a plot that appears, at first, to be simply an ironic subversion of the orthodox Jesus story. Possibly thanks to Jesus' healing touch -- on this point, and all others that involve divinity, Crace is carefully ambiguous -- Musa comes back to life, but good does not ensue. He savagely beats his donkey to death, hectors his wife and hits upon a deceitful plan to bilk his fellow wilderness-dwellers: He tells them that he is the owner of the land and that they owe him rent. He also begins to think of ways to achieve his lustful designs upon the voluptuous Marta.

From this point on, Quarantine mingles Musa's story, and to a lesser degree those of the pilgrims he manipulates, with the separate but related story of Jesus' ordeal. The impression that Crace's main aim is ironic is strengthened by the ways the stories overlap: When Shim and Aphas fling Musa's dead donkey off a cliff, for example, it almost hits Jesus, who is standing outside his cave down below looking for a sign from god. And the temptations Jesus must endure are not given by the devil, as in the Gospels, but are leather bags of food and water lowered by Musa, who shouts down to his "friend" and "healer" to come up and heal the others. Above all, there are Musa's evil deeds, culminating in his rape of Marta. But by the end of the story, the ironies of Crace's tale are outmatched by affirmation -- perhaps an affirmation of faith, perhaps merely of humanity, but affirmation nonetheless.

Chicago Sun-Times
Stunning...extraordinary...One of the freshest and most inventive novelistic uses of biblical material I have read.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This extraordinary novel, a sometimes realistic, sometimes hallucinatory account of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, is the latest by England's Crace, a writer of great gifts (The Gift of Stones, Continent), and was reportedly the runner-up to The God of Small Things for the Booker prize. It is a remarkably successful attempt to put a story known by everyone into a convincing physical and historical context. The beauty and precision of Crace's writing, as well as his store of knowledge about such arcane matters as weaving two millennia ago and the fauna of the Judean desert, give what could have been a fey experiment an air of overwhelming authority. For a start, Jesus, portrayed as a rather callow youth befuddled by prayer, is not at the center of the canvas. That spot belongs to Musa, a stout, lecherous, bullying merchant with a beguiling tongue, whose skinny and long-suffering wife, Miri, has left him for dead in his tent as the story begins. Then, Jesus is not the only pilgrim essaying a fast in the desert. Setting about their vigils in their very different ways are Shim, a handsome, self-absorbed ascetic; Marta, a prosperous but barren woman who yearns to conceive; Aphas, an elderly Jew with cancer; and a dumb, wiry peasant. After Jesus seems to bring Musa back to life (he is obsessed with the idea of being a healer), the merchant comes to dominate the group, using his salesman's skills to convince them that he is their landlord and they owe him tribute. Only the thought of Jesus, who hides from the rest in his inaccessible cave, gives him pause. As for Jesus himself, can Musa be the devil sent to tempt him? The ways in which Crace has the six desert dwellers interrelate with each other and with Jesus are spellbinding; the book is a superbly crafted combination of historical and inspirational fiction that is genuinely unique. Rights: David Godwin Assoc. (Apr.) (PW best book of 1998)
Library Journal
The Bible tells of Christ's temptation by the devil during his 40-day fast in the wilderness. In his newest novel, the talented Crace (, LJ 8/95) expands on this scenario by adding a few characters, all of whom have come to the same cavernous area to fast and pray for healing. The devil himself actually never shows up, but Jesus' inadvertent companions provide enough temptation and derision for readers to get the point. Chief among the travelers is Musa, a greedy, corpulent trader who takes what he wants from his tenants and his wife through violence and intimidation. Yet even Musa may not be beyond salvation. Not forbiddingly scholarly, this book will be of interest mainly to libraries with strong religious collections, though Crace does leaven the sparse story line with humor, character development, and a clinical eye to what exactly happens to a body over 40 days without food or drink. Sure to please some readers, though the audience is bound to be small. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/97.]Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., Pa.
Seattle Times
An incantory, compelling novel that stands beside Camus' The Stranger.
The Wall Street Journal
Immensely enjoyable...Crace's vivid writing brings his clever take on the Bible to life.
Boston Book Review
A brilliantly imagined work.
Carey Harrison
A brilliantly unusual, entertaining and profound book.
San Francisco Chronicle
Bruce Bawer
Immensely impressive...This novel is a high-wire act, a tour de force, a garment expertly tailored from materials of the highest quality
Washington Post Book World
Mary Karr
"A horrifyingly human story you've never heard before, one that resonates with spiritual consequence almost as an afterthought. I read it, transfixed, in one sitting." --Mary Karr, author of The Liar's Club
Frank Kermode
Remarkable....The effect is almost hallucinatory.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Moving from the sea's edge of his last novel, Signals of Distress (1995), to the wind-whipped desert of Judea, England's Crace reconfigures Christ's forty days of temptation in a mesmerizing story of spiritual quest and human failing. Musa the merchant, having fallen ill of a fever while traveling, lies an insensible mountain of flesh in his tent, abandoned by all in his caravan but his pregnant wife, who herself wishes him dead. As she digs his grave, four travelers arrive on foot—followed distantly by a fifth—to occupy nearby caves for a period of "quarantine": fasting and prayer in isolation. The four go straight to their refuges, but the fifth, Jesus, comes to Musa's tent for a last sip of water, and miraculously heals his host before sliding down a cliff face to a nearly inaccessible cave, bringing nothing with him but the clothes on his back. The resurrected Musa, sensing a trading opportunity, extracts rent from the others, three men and a woman, for using "his" caves, then barters with them daily, tempting them with small delicacies to lessen their discomfort. His main objective, however, is to talk with Jesus, the miracle-worker of whom he has only a feverish memory. But the man won't even come out of His cave despite continual pleading from the cliff above, simply throwing away Musa's enticements of food and water. His silent strength of purpose persuades the others He can do wonders for them all, but after 30 days a great wind arises, flattening Musa's tent just as he's raping the solitary woman in her cave, and the dawn brings even more dreadful news, forcing all but one to pack up and move on. A flawlessly presented tale (shortlisted for the BookerPrize) that opens a window on human aspiration and folly, its revelations full of grit and glory.
From the Publisher
"Remarkable . . . The effect is almost hallucinatory."—Frank Kermode, The New York Times Book Review

"Stunning . . . extraordinary . . . One of the freshest and most inventive novelistic uses of biblical material I have read."—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"A spiritual mystery of the best kind . . . Crace is a master at creating a convincing landscape out of evocative, earthy details . . . The creation of an ambitious imagination . . . A literary miracle."—USA Today

"A superb book . . . It succeeds thanks to Crace's potent, imaginative rendering of the characters and the setting, and because of its distinctive, lilting language."—Time Out New York

"Immensely impressive . . . This novel is a high-wire act, a tour de force, a garment expertly tailored from materials of the highest quality."—Bruce Bawer, The Washington Post Book World

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780783801131
  • Publisher: Macmillan Library Reference
  • Publication date: 5/28/1998
  • Series: Core Series
  • Pages: 323
  • Product dimensions: 6.43 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Crace is the author of Continent, The Gift of Stones, Arcadia, Signals of Distress, Being Dead, and most recently The Devil's Larder. He has won the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and the GAP International Prize for Literature. His novels have been translated into fourteen languages. He lives in Birmingham, England, with his wife and two children.

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Read an Excerpt



Miri’s husband was shouting in his sleep, not words that she could recognize but simple, blurting fanfares of distress. When, at last, she lit a lamp to discover what was tormenting him, she saw his tongue was black – scorched and sooty. Miri smelled the devil’s eggy dinner roasting on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil’s kindling in his cough. She put her hand on to his chest; it was soft, damp and hot, like fresh bread. Her husband, Musa, was being baked alive. Good news.

Miri was as dutiful as she could be. She sat cross-legged inside their tent with Musa’s neck resting on the pillow of her swollen ankles, his head pushed up against the new distension of her stomach, and tried to lure the fever out with incense and songs. He received the treatment that she – five months pregnant, and in some discomfort – deserved for herself She wiped her husband’s forehead with a dampened cloth. She rubbed his eyelids and his lips with honey water. She kept the flies away. She sang her litanies all night. But the fever was deaf Or, perhaps, its hearing was so sharp that it had eavesdropped on Miri’s deepest prayers and knew that Musa’s death would not be unbearable. His death would rescue her.

In the morning Musa was as numb and dry as leather, but – cussed to the last – was gripping thinly on to life. His family and the other, older men from the caravan came in to kiss his forehead and mumble their regrets that they had not treated him with greater patience while he was healthy. When they had smelled and tasted the sourness of his skin and seen the ashy blackness of his mouth, they shook their heads and dabbed their eyes and calculated the extra profits they would make from selling Musa’s merchandise on the sly. Musa was paying a heavy price, his uncles said, for sleeping on his back without a cloth across his face. An idiotic way to die. A devil had slipped into his open mouth at night and built a fire beneath the rafters of his ribs. Devils were like anybody else; they had to find what warmth they could or perish in the desert cold. Now Musa had provided lodging for the devil’s fever. He wouldn’t last more than a day or two – if he did, then it would be a miracle. And not a welcome one.

It was Miri’s duty to Musa, everybody said, to let the caravan go on through Jericho towards the markets of the north without her. It couldn’t travel with fever in its cargo. It couldn’t wait while Musa died. Nor could it spare the forty days of mourning which would follow. That would be madness. Musa himself wouldn’t expect such waste. He had been a merchant too, and would agree, if only he were conscious, God forbid, that business should not wait for funerals. Or pregnancies. Fortunes would be lost if merchants could not hurry on. Besides, the camels wouldn’t last. They needed grazing and watering, and there was no standing water in this wilderness and hardly any hope of rain. No, it was a crippling sadness for them too, make no mistake, the uncles said, but Miri had to stay behind, continue with her singing till the end, and bury Musa on her own.

She’d have to put up stones to mark her husband’s passing and tend his grave until the caravan returned for her. She would be safe and comfortable if she took care. There was sufficient water in skins for a week or so, and then she could locate a cistern of some kind; there were also figs and olives and some grain, some salted meat and other food, plus the tent, the family possessions, small amounts of different wools, a knife, some perfume and a little gold. She’d have company as well. They’d leave six goats for her, plus a halting donkey which was too slow and useless for the caravan. Two donkeys then. Both lame, she said, nodding at her husband.

Nobody laughed at Miri’s indiscretions. It did not seem appropriate to laugh when there was fever in the tent, though leaving Musa behind, half dead, was a satisfying prospect for everyone. With luck, they said, Musa would only have to endure his suffering for a day or two more. And then? And then, when Miri had done her duty to her husband, they suggested, there would be habitations in the valley where she could, perhaps, seek refuge. She might find a buyer for the gold; take care, they warned, for gold can bring bad luck as well. Or she might employ the goats to buy herself a place to stay for her confinement – until the caravan had a chance to come for her and any child, if it survived. Eventually, she’d have the profits from her husband’s merchandise which they would trade on her behalf, the sacks of decorated copperware from Edom, his beloved bolts of woven cloth, his coloured wools. She smiled at that and shook her head and asked if they imagined that she was a halting donkey too. No, no, they said; why couldn’t she have more faith in their honesty? Of course there would be profits from the sale. They would not want to say how much. But she might be rich enough to get another husband. A better one than Musa anyhow, they thought. A smaller one. An older one. One that didn’t lie or use his fists so frequently, or shout and weep and laugh so much. One who didn’t get so drunk, perhaps, then sit up half the night throwing pebbles at the camels and his neighbours’ tents, pelting goats’ dung at the moon. One that didn’t stink so badly as he died.

They promised they would return by the following spring, one year at the latest. But Miri understood there’d be no spring to bring them back, no matter where they went. They’d make certain that their winters didn’t end. Why would they come so far to reclaim the widow and the orphan of a man who’d been so troublesome and unpredictable? Besides, they wouldn’t want to lose the profits they had made. Not after they had held them for a year. No, Miri was not worth the trip. That was the plain, commercial truth.

So Miri let them go. She spat into the dust as they set off along the crumbling cliff-tops to the landslip where they could begin their descent. Spitting brought good luck for traders. Deals were struck with a drop of spit on a coin or in the palm of the hand or sometimes even on the goods to be exchanged. Spit does better business than a sneeze, they said. So, if anyone had dared to look at Miri, they could have taken her spitting to be a blessing for their journey. But no one dared. They must have known that she did not wish them well. They’d given her the chance to change her life, perhaps. But inadvertently. No, Miri despised them for their haste and cowardice. Her spitting was a prayer that they would lame themselves, or lose their cargoes in the Jordan, or have their throats sliced open by thieves, their eyes pecked out by birds. She felt elated, once the uncles and their animals had gone. Then she was depressed and terrified. And then entirely calm, despite the isolation of their tent and the nearness of her husband’s death. She would not concern herself with the practicalities of life. Not yet. Women managed with much less. For the moment she could only concentrate on all the liberties of widowhood – and motherhood — which would be hers as soon as he was dead.

QUARANTINE. Copyright © 1998 by Jim Crace. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Interviews & Essays

On Saturday, April 4th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Jim Crace to discuss QUARANTINE.

Moderator: Welcome to our Auditorium, Jim Crace. We are pleased to have you with us tonight. Before we begin, do you have any opening comments for your online audience?

Jim Crace: Yes, please be patient. This is my first encounter with the Net. I'm a Luddite and don't plan on being online at home in England until my kids have fled the roost.

John R. from St. Petersburg, FL: Your book sounds interesting, but I have not yet read it. Could you tell us, in your own words, what it is about?

Jim Crace: Quarantine is an attempt to put the Christian religion under some hard-nosed scientific scrutiny. I take an established fact (that nobody could fast for 40 days without food and drink -- they'd die after four days) and place it at the center of the Bible story in which Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast for 40 days. So it's science versus God.

Geraldine from New York City: How do you see the character of Jesus? How does this compare with the popular image of Jesus? Did the way you view Jesus -- both as a character in your book and as a figure in Christian faith -- change in writing this book?

Jim Crace: It's always difficult writing about such a celebrated figure. Even for me -- and I'm an atheist -- just writing his name is to take on a whole load of religious and historical baggage. It helps that most of the conventional images of Christ present him as some kind of blond Scandinavian superman. I simply reminded myself that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. He would have been swarthy and black haired. I also asked myself what kind of young man would rather spend time in prayer than in the company of his friends. An inward-looking, shy person, someone who prefers his own company to the crowd, a man who is to some extent dysfunctional. Finally, I avoided the name Jesus, and gave Christ a nickname, Gally (the Galilean). That freed up my imagination. Then I let the narrative take over.

Peter H. from Greenwich, CT: Was it difficult to write about a biblical character? What were the advantages or difficulties of undertaking such a challenge?

Jim Crace: My last answer covers most of your question. But I want to say that actually QUARANTINE was not intended to be a book about Christ at all. It was mostly going to be about the four other travelers who are in the wilderness at the same time as him. I'd refer to Christ's presence in a paragraph or two to give the novel some religious and historical provenance, and then Jesus would slip out of the narrative. But as I wrote, he elbowed his way into the story. Christian readers in Britain have said that this happened because the Grace of God was standing at my shoulder as I wrote. They're wrong. It was the imp of storytelling at my shoulder. That imp can pull the oddest tricks.

Iggy from Ft. Lauderdale, FL: It seems in all your books, at least the ones I have read (THE GIFT OF STONES, CONTINENT, and QUARANTINE) , you write vividly about places that either do not really exist, or that at least seem foreign to our existence. What attracts you to such places? Would you consider writing about somewhere familiar and modern (or have you written about such places in other books I have not yet read)? Thank you, Iggy.

Jim Crace: You're quite correct, Iggy. I like to invent places. It's fun. Big lies are always better than small ones. Most novelists choose real settings because they want to locate their readers, to give them the shock of recognition. I prefer to dislocate my readers, to take an issue that is contemporary and place it in a new context. THE GIFT OF STONES, for example, deals with the issue of how a community that loses the dignity of work can reinvent itself. It was prompted by my experience of Birmingham in the 1980s, but I set it at the end of the Stone Age. I have written two novels set in modern times, ARCADIA and CONTINENT. The next novel, BEING DEAD, is set slightly in the future.

Bennie X. from Portland, OR: What has the reaction from Christian readers been? How have they received QUARANTINE?

Jim Crace: I half expected a Christian fatwa. But I had not realized how hard it is to offend a Christian. In fact, unlike the Muslim religion, the Christian religion has always relished doubters and embraced sinners. British Christians have, so far, greeted the novel as if it is a modern scripture that underscores their beliefs rather than undermines them. I am surprised. And somewhat relieved.

Yolanda: Have your personal beliefs changed at all while writing this story? I'm not asking if you've converted, but more how this story affected you personally. If writing something as powerful as this book has changed the way you thought or felt before you began it. I think it is a wonderful book, and thank you.

Jim Crace: I'm very happy that you liked the book, Yolanda. Of course, nobody could spend a year writing on such a subject and not be affected by it. What it has done is to strengthen my atheism by making it more spiritual. I used to present my atheism as the absence of belief, a bleak and hollow thing. But now I recognize that transcendence and mysticism are not incompatible with the nonexistence of God. The power of nature and natural forces seem more worthy of our awe than the simplistic explanations of the universe dished up by religion. Atheists are the new mystics.

Morgan from Waynesboro: Have you read Norman Mailer's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON?

Jim Crace: I have. Duty calls. Norman Mailer has written five or six of the great postwar American books. We owe him respect. But his GOSPEL was not his best. He managed to turn wine into water. A miracle of writing in reverse.

Pamela from Oak Park, IL: I have just begun reading QUARANTINE, and I think it is just beautiful, and I can't wait to finish it. I am curious to know where the story began for you. What motivated you to write it?

Jim Crace: Novels transform before your eyes as you write them. That's the joy of fiction for me. I had intended to write a book in which all the characters were troubled, living on the edge. I was interested in this subject after I had visited a hostel of 149 bedrooms near my home where mental patients were housed. I wanted to find a setting in which I could dislocate their experience. Someone sent me a postcard of the cave near Jericho where Jesus passed his 40 days. I noticed that the cliff was full of caves. One hundred and forty-nine caves at least. It was an ancient version of the hostel I had visited. That was the starting point. Then I let the story fly.

Rebecca Hewlett from Louisville, KY: Who is your favorite character in your book? Also, as an atheist, did you find it more or less difficult to write about Jesus than if you were a Christian? Thanks.

Jim Crace: My favorite character is the woman, Miri. She isn't beautiful. She isn't powerful. She isn't smooth tongued. In fact, she's nothing like a Hollywood heroine. But she is strong.

Wellington Phillips from Athens, OH: How long did it take you to write QUARANTINE?

Jim Crace: About a year. I'm a lazy writer. (What's the hurry? My readers can only tolerate about one book every three years from me.)

Bill Harries from Houston, TX: Did you know QUARANTINE would become the novel that it is when you began it? What did you originally think would happen in the story? What surprised you most while writing it?

Jim Crace: My novels are always a surprise to me. I wonder who wrote them. People who meet me can't believe that I produced the books. I'm not sufficiently intellectual or well informed. They've fallen into the trap of believing that writers must be like their books. But what is most interesting for me is how writers are different from their books. That's because a novel when it's truly underway has a wilful spirit of its own. In the case of QUARANTINE, the spirit wouldn't let me kill Jesus off entirely as I had planned. That wasn't ambiguous enough. And stories love ambiguity.

Richie Wohl from Binghamton, NY: How much of the Bible had you read before you decided to write QUARANTINE? What other research did you do?

Jim Crace: I didn't read the Bible. I only read those few verses that dealt with the wilderness days. I did very little research. I visited Judea for a few weeks in the desert, but mostly because I fancied the trip, not to do research. I needed to see the landscape so that I could tell convincing lies about it. I don't like awkward facts to get in the way of the narrative.

Muriel Ellington from Huntington, WV: What are your writing habits like? Would you say you are a disciplined writer? What do you love most about writing? Least?

Jim Crace: I pretend that I'm disciplined to my editor, my agent, my wife, and my children. I say that I start work in the morning as soon as I have walked the dog and that I stop, having completed 1,000 words, when the children return from school. The truth is that I'm easily distracted, particularly in the early chapters of a novel. I waste days sitting in the garden, pretending to solve some problem with the narrative. I do too many crosswords and ride off on my bike for no good reason. But when the book gets some wind in its sails then I become genuinely hardworking. And everybody who knows me complains that I become impossibly remote and preoccupied.

Meagan Haggarty from Arlington, VA: Are you working on a new book now? Could you tell us about it?

Jim Crace: I"m writing a novel called BEING DEAD. A cheerful little title. It's the logical book to write after QUARANTINE. It is an optimistic romance that deals with the finality of death. There is no god. There is no paradise, or judgement day, or any eternity. We draw our last breaths and that's the end. The novel tries to make some sense of that bleak fact.

Susan Burns from Sherman, TX: I read that you were a journalist until you were 40 and then turned to fiction. What caused you to do this? Do you ever go back to journalism? Do you miss it?

Jim Crace: I had an important story on a racially sensitive issue spiked by an editor of The Sunday Times who hadn't got the brains or humanity to know better. I left journalism on principle, but my first novel, CONTINENT, had just been published and was earning lots of cash. Would I have been so principled if I hadn't got the cash? I no longer do any journalism. I don't miss the work, but I do miss the colleagues, especially the photographers.

Bethany Keene from Toronto, Canada: As a writer, is there anything you seek to convey in your novels? Many authors claim to seek to explore character and human relationships, human interaction, but it seems as if there is something more going on in your novels. Do you wish to share a moral or message? If so, what is it? What message did you want to convey in QUARANTINE? Thank you. I love all your books.

Jim Crace: Thanks, Bethany. I have been more interested in the fate of communities than the fate of individuals. And the tone of my books tends to be moralistic rather than cynical or ironic in the English manner. If there is a shared "message" in any of my books it is 1) that traders, merchants, and capitalists do more harm than good; and that 2) all people are lovable despite their blemishes. That's a mild expression of something I feel passionately.

Mei from Durham, NC: Some of your prose sounds biblical in QUARANTINE -- did you intend this, or was it an effect of the subject matter or your research?

Jim Crace: Intentional. I wanted to use the same heightened language of the Bible. But I wanted my prose to have more clarity.

Pennie from Brooklyn, NY: Who are your favorite authors? Could you recommend your favorites? Also, coming from England, can you recommend any British writers we might not have heard of?

Jim Crace: I spend all day writing fiction, so I tend to avoid novels as personal reading. I like writing about the natural world. At the moment the Americans are the best at this. I read Barry Lopez, Stephen J. Gould, E. O. Wilson, and John McPhee. My all-time favorite is THE SONG OF THE DODO by David Quammen, first published in 1987. It's an adventure in island biodiversity. And it's immensely diverting and exciting. I"d sacrifice a couple of my novels just to have written a book half as good as DODO. As for English writers you won't have heard of? I'm not very up to date. But I do enjoy Will Self for his uncompromising inventiveness.

Henry P. from Bennington, VT: How do your personal beliefs affect your writing? Because it is fiction, do you think you can write a story independent of your convictions? Did your convictions change while you were writing this book, or did you at any time contradict your own beliefs with what you had written?

Jim Crace: I'd love to be an old-fashioned didactic and political writer like Orwell. But, unfortunately, that's not the hand I've been dealt. When I write polemically it always sounds like a leaflet. So I'm stuck with my sub-Magic Realism. That doesn't mean that my beliefs are sidelined. It's literature that is the sideline. I lead an active political life (on the sentimental left). It just doesn't show up in the novels.

Richard P. Anderson from Ann Arbor, MI: I think it is very interesting that you have written a book about Jesus, and yet you are an atheist. Can you tell us a bit about your personal beliefs, as well as how you view Christianity? How did this affect the direction of your book?

Jim Crace: I'm a hard-line scientific atheist. I believe that the universe was created and is controlled by natural forces, and that there is no divine power. But that does not mean that I do not have a moral code or that I am unable to respond to the startling diversity of the planet. I just do it without the help of God, that's all.

Mark S. Crichton from Rockville, MD: Do you write full time? How did you begin as a writer? Do you have any advice for a young writer? Thank you very much. I m glad to see you online.

Jim Crace: Writing novels is my only job. But it's hardly a full-time occupation. I started writing as a journalist and became relatively well known. That meant that it was easy for me to get a contract to write a novel when I wanted to. Most people don't have that luck. But I am not a cynic about the publishing industry. I do believe that if your work has talent it will be picked up by an editor somewhere. You just have to persevere, and remember always to take the challenging and ambitious route with your writing. If you set your sights low you'll write something that is unremarkable.

Elke M. Jones from Pittsburgh, PA: How did you decide who the other characters in QUARANTINE would be? We always think of Jesus in the company of the apostles, but we rarely imagine him alone with strangers. How did you decide who those strangers would be?

Jim Crace: These things just develop in the writing. I knew that I wanted a strong woman character who was barren, as that would allow me to explore some interesting themes. And I also knew that I needed the Devil's representative. But the other characters bubbled up under their own volition. The badu, for example, is discovered to be deaf about three-quarters of the way through the book. It surprises the reader. It surprised me, too, because that is not what I had intended.

Iris from Arizona: I read that you traveled to Palestine to write this book. What was your favorite place you visited? Also, does any of the geography you saw actually appear in your book?

Jim Crace: None of the real Palestine is to be found in the novel, but the spirit of the country is there, I hope. The place I liked the best was the high scrubland behind Qumran. I slept out there with Izzat, my Bedouin guide. When we woke up we were surrounded by gazelles.

Michelle R. Morgenstern from Savannah, GA: I am curious about how you went about writing the character of Jesus. What resources did you use to get to know your character?

Jim Crace: I didn't use any biblical resources. I just looked around at those young men who lived near me in Birmingham and were involved in evangelical and charismatic Christian groups. QUARANTINE was meant to be a novel with modern as well as ancient themes.

Peter Hochman from Palo Alto, CA: Why did you choose to call Jesus Gally instead of using his name all the time in your narrative?

Jim Crace: I answered this question earlier, Peter. But I think that Gally is a sweet name. It humanizes Jesus. It brings him into our universe, a young and troubled youth rather than a remote and one-dimensional icon.

Oren from Williamsburg, VA: Your description of landscape in QUARANTINE is so rich and thoroughly believable. Have you traveled to the area you described?

Jim Crace: See the earlier answer, Oren. But remember that things do not have to researched to be thoroughly believable. Humankind is a narrative animal. Storytelling is in our genes. I didn't have to go to Palestine. My landscape was invented in a converted garage in the scruffy suburb of Moseley in Birmingham, England. The trick with telling believable lies is to use convincing vocabulary with confidence.

Peter M. from Chelsea, NY: If Jesus were on a book tour today, would you recommend he fly a turboprop or jet airplane?

Jim Crace: I'd suggest that he went up onto the roof of the Temple and simply flapped his hands.

Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Jim Crace, and taking the time to answer our questions. Any last words for your online audience before you go?

Jim Crace: Much more fun than I'd expected -- thanks mostly to the generous comments that you have made and to the intelligent questions. Many thanks, and goodnight.

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Reading Group Guide

Judea, two thousand years ago: it is the first new moon of spring. Several travelers have gathered at a group of remote desert caves: an aged Jew stricken by cancer, a wild desert dweller, a handsome blond man searching for enlightenment, and a childless woman who longs for a baby. The final, and most mysterious, pilgrim is a young Galilean named Jesus who hopes, perhaps alone among them, to come face-to-face with god.

Crace's compelling rendition of the forty-day "quarantine" is a first-rate work of literature, a repository of poetry, powerful images, and gritty realism. Furthermore, it is also a bold philosophical statement, an unconventional and sometimes shocking recasting of the nebulous, rumor-shrouded events that have molded and influenced much of the world's character and history for the past two thousand years.

Discussion Questions:
1. Crace uses the following epigraph from The Limits of Mortality at the beginning of the book: "An ordinary man of average weight and fitness embarking on a total fast-that is, a fast during which he refuses both his food and drink-could not expect to live for more than thirty days, nor to be conscious for more than twenty-five. For him, the forty days of fasting described in religious texts would not be achievable -- except with divine help, of course. History, however, does not record an intervention of that kind, and medicine opposes it." Why do you think Crace uses this for an epigraph, and what does this tell us about his intentions?

2. "The scrubland welcomed Miri"(p.8). By what means does Crace give the landscape a character, and what sort of character is it? Who thrives in this landscape; what human characteristics does it favor? What does the landscape's welcoming of Miri tell us about Miri herself? Do you feel that the author loves, hates, or fears the desert? What words and terms does he use to describe the landscape's peculiar sensuality?

3. Why does Crace use "quarantine" as a term for the traditional forty-day fast period, and why do you think he has chosen it as the title for his book?

4. Telling of Jesus' past, the narrator says, "He had been standing at the window of his father's workshop and god had called his name" (p.22). Here, and in later portions of the book, does the narrator imply that this calling came purely and simply from Jesus' imagination? Why has Crace chosen not to capitalize the word "god"?

5. In Musa's tent, Jesus tells himself: "He had to leave this sick man on his own to die. Otherwise he'd never reach the cave; he'd miss the start of quarantine" (p.26). Is this decision a cowardly or selfish one on Jesus' part? Does it invalidate what he was trying to achieve by his quarantine? Does the author imply that Jesus' touch healed Musa, or that Musa would have recovered anyway?

6. What do the lives of Marta and Miri tell us about the condition of women in their culture? What was their role, and how were they regarded by the male half of the population? What is their opinion of men and marriage? In what fundamental ways do the women in this novel differ in character from the men?

7. "But Jesus had not come this far to witness only godless routines of the sun and sky and sea. He had to take each shift of light, each colouring, each shadow of a bird to be the evidence of god. He had to persuade himself, before the forty days were up, that he'd been awarded a brief view of god's kingdom" (p.81). Jesus was "a man who was in the mood to divine grand meanings in the simplest acts. There'd be no god without such men" (p.128). What do these quotations imply about the nature of Jesus as a human being? About the nature of religion as a phenomenon?

8. During Jesus' sufferings, he mistakes Musa for the devil. Is Jesus' identification of Musa as the devil possibly a correct one; that is, is Musa purely evil? In what ways does Musa resemble, or not resemble, the New Testament devil?

9. Just before he dies, Jesus hears a voice "not Jewish and not Greek" (p.192). "The voice took charge of him. It walked him to the row of distant caves." To what extent does the narrator make you believe, or disbelieve, in Jesus' supernatural inspiration?

10. Musa has a vision of Jesus after Jesus' death (pp.204-6). Is Musa changed in any substantial way after this vision? Are any of the others fundamentally changed after their quarantine? If so, in what way? Do these changes occur as a result of Jesus' presence?

11. What do you think will happen to the characters after the novel closes? What will Musa do, and what role will he have in the propagation of the "Jesus sect" and, eventually, the birth of Christianity? What role, if any, will the other quarantine participants have in it?

12. Does Crace's narrative strike you as a feasible version of the real events? In your opinion, does it contain psychological truth?

13. What is religion or the religious impulse, as Crace describes it? Is it superstition and fear, or are there other, more genuinely spiritual elements?

14. In an interview (The Guardian, June 12, 1997), Crace says that he's a "post-Dawkins scientific atheist" but that his "novels are free to express, and always do express, a different viewpoint" from his own. Would you say that this is true of Quarantine -- that the novel expresses a different viewpoint from that of pure atheism?

About the Author:
Jim Crace is the author of Continent (1986), The Gift of Stones (1988), Arcadia (1992), and Signals of Distress (1994). He has been the recipient of the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the E.M. Forster Award, and the GAP International Prize for Literature. Quarantine was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Novel of the Year award. Crace's novels have been translated into fourteen languages. He lives in Birmingham, England, with his wife and two children.

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  • Anonymous

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2011

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