Children of Paradise: A Novelby Fred D'Aguiar
Acclaimed novelist, playwright, and poet Fred D’Aguiar has been short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in poetry for Bill of Rights, his narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory. In this beautifully imagined work of literary fiction, he returns to the territory of Jim/em>/em>
Acclaimed novelist, playwright, and poet Fred D’Aguiar has been short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in poetry for Bill of Rights, his narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory. In this beautifully imagined work of literary fiction, he returns to the territory of Jim Jones’s utopian commune, interweaving magical realism and shocking history into a resonant story of love, faith, oppression, and sacrifice in which a mother and daughter attempt to break free with the help of an extraordinary gorilla.
Joyce and her young daughter, Trina, are members of a utopian community ruled by a magnetic preacher. When Trina, plays too near to the cage holding the commune’s gorilla, Adam, the ape attacks and kills the child. Or so everyone believes. That night, the preacher dramatically “revives” her—an act that transforms Trina into a symbol of its charismatic leader’s God-like power. Desperate to save her daughter from the preacher’s control, the outspoken Joyce attempts a daring escape, a run for freedom aided by another prisoner—the remarkable Adam.
Told with a sweeping perspective in lush prose, shimmering with magic, and devastating in its clarity, Children of Paradise is a brilliant and evocative exploration of oppression—of both mind and body—and of the liberating power of storytelling.
D'Aguiar's (Bethany Bettany) fifth novel launches us into the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide and cult leader Jim Jones's twisted version of paradise: an isolated place where the inhabitants are starving and punished for the smallest infraction, where a community's adults allows live tarantulas and scorpions to crawl over small children as a test of their faith, where the spiritual leader is viewed as half-deity, half-rockstar by all who live there. Although readers learn little about the main characters, we do find out that the college-educated Joyce and her spirited daughter Trina are two of the commune's most respected members. Yet even they begin to have doubts after witnessing the preacher's deception and lies. Still, the most magical part of this story isn't Joyce or even Trina, but Adam, the enormous caged gorilla, whom the preacher uses to scare and control the members of the community. Adam is the book's heart and provides almost all the poignancy and dark humor. While D'Aguiar can describe starvation with prose so evocative it makes a person hunger for a piece of bread, he focuses little on the characters themselves—and the kind evil charisma that led to the suicides of 918 people. (Feb.)
Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory, Guyana-born D'Aguiar here re-creates the final months of the commune formed by the Rev. Jim Jones in 1970s Guyana, immediately placing the reader inside its walls. As children play near the cage of a gorilla named Adam, a benevolent and intelligent presence, Adam reaches out and puts his arms around Trina. Jones arrives to free Trina but subsequently declares her dead, days later performing a miraculous and theatrical resurrection. Meanwhile, Trina and her mother, Joyce, who occasionally travels to the capital on business, have formed a strictly forbidden relationship with an outsider, the captain of the boat that services the community. As word that the commune is being investigated reaches Jones, the final act that has been hinted at looms large. Even as D'Aguiar lavishes his poetic talents on long, impressionistic passages describing the surrounding jungle's idyllic beauty and terrifying force, the present-tense narrative propels the story at a feverish pace. The reader is caught up in the commune's naïve spirituality, incomprehensible surrender of rational thought, and indifference to nature and the rest of the world. VERDICT A fascinating portrait of the horrifically flawed yet gifted Jones, whose preaching is dramatically and convincingly presented, [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.
A mother and daughter seek to escape a commune headed by an autocratic preacher in D'Aguiar's (The Longest Memory, 1995, etc.) evocative novel, based on tragic events that occurred in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana. They've surrendered their birth certificates, their worldly possessions and their free wills to follow a charismatic leader to an exotic location in the midst of a jungle. But their 3,000 acre commune is far from the utopia some devotees envisioned. Instead, members endure beatings and theatrical tests of faith, including ones that involve absolute trust while scorpions or tarantulas skitter up and down their arms. The preacher often uses fear and deceptive, "miraculous" resurrections to maintain a firm grip on a community that includes Joyce, her 10-year-old daughter, Trina, and a caged gorilla named Adam, whose thoughts and actions provide a unique perspective to D'Aguiar's narrative. Much as the preacher's praise and special attention ensure cooperation and adoration from his adherents, fruit and back scratches guarantee the gorilla's loyalty, at least for a time. But not all who live within the commune remain complacent. Some are labeled dissidents, and others, like Trina's friend Ryan, try to run away or go into hiding. Joyce holds a trusted position keeping the commune's books in order and makes occasional boat trips to the mainland office, where money often changes hands with local officials. She and the boat's captain develop an attraction, and he entertains Trina with stories about a spirited spider named Anansi while he verbally spars with Joyce when she defends the commune and invites him to join. When the preacher increasingly begins to single out Trina, Joyce and her daughter plan their escape from a community so enthralled with his promises they dutifully practice when he instructs them to rehearse the ultimate act. Joyce insists that they limit their plan of escape to themselves, but Trina has a change of heart. D'Aguiar's narrative adequately describes the brutality and manipulative efforts of a self-absorbed leader, and his depiction of Adam and the infusion of magical realism add an unusual and sympathetic aspect to the story. The author provides insight into the psyche of cult members, but it's still puzzling why any person would blindly follow such destructive directives.
Meet the Author
Fred D'Aguiar is an acclaimed novelist, playwright, and poet. He has been short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for Bill of Rights, a narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory. Born in London, he was raised in Guyana until the age of twelve, when he returned to the UK. He teaches at Virginia Tech and is an American citizen.
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