Quarantine by Jim Crace

Quarantine was the winner of the Whitbread Novel of the Year in 1998 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is fiction based on Jesus’ 40 days in the desert.

I have read no other works by Crace and this was an “accidental” choice to the degree that it was being read by an online group which reads only Booker winners and nominees and I monitor that group to expand my own reading options. Another inspiration for reading Quarantine was a reading several years ago of Nino Ricci’s Testament, also about Jesus. I now think I must reread that novel.

QuarantineThere have been many reviews and papers written about Quarantine. After I had begun the reading I did look up one or two to find encouragement because Quarantine is not without challenge.

Crace apparently wrote an introduction to the novel especially for American readers to explain why he wrote it and how it effected his religious position. He anticipated that his novel might deeply disturb some Christians but in the introduction he writes: “…I found that Quarantine had been received by many British readers as a spiritual and scriptural text, an enrichment rather than a challenge to their faith. ” To those who questioned that he could have written the book, he countered: “They do not understand that books have agendas of their own, no matter what the author may believe. Novels and their writers are not mere mirror images. It’s the imp of story-telling at our shoulders, not the Grace of God.” He also admits that “nobody could spend two years writing such a book and remain undisturbed by it”.  Anyone interested can find much more about the novel easily.

The characters, including Jesus, in Quarantine are richly imagined and presented. Musa the merchant and his wife Miri who were travelling with a larger family group have been left on the desert because Musa was dying of a fever and the caravan had to move on to markets. Musa had his tent and a large share of the trading goods the caravan had been conveying. The reader meets these two first and quickly becomes aware of the state of the relationship of their marriage. Miri is setting about digging a grave for her husband’s body. Gradually the other characters come forward: they are coming to participate in a quarantine which word refers to a period of forty days, usually for the purpose of purification or enlightenment. Our modern definition refers to the isolation of the contagious sick in order to protect others. There are many references to sickness in the novel beginning with Musa’s fever, then various states of depression and also the badhu’s unusual mental affliction.

Musa is the first to have contact with Jesus who is referred to from then on as “the Gally” because he comes from Gallilee. He wanders into Musa’s tent where he is dying of fever and touches him and gives him water. Then he wanders off again searching accommodation for himself for the forty days ahead. Miri is off trying to dig a grave for Musa because she knows she will have to bury him the next day.

The other “quarantiners” include :

Aphas, an elderly Jew who “hoped to make peace with his god, and with himself, of course. …but most of all he hoped for miracles”; he had a large growth on his side;

Marta a middle-aged woman who desperately wants a child to please her husband, …”after ten years of barrenness a man could take another wife” according to the law and he would have to turn Marta out and find another wife;

Shim came from the north and “knew some Aramaic and some Greek” and “was no Jew” he said although his grandfather had been a Jew; he said he “was seeking something that he could not name” and that his god “was immanent in everything…He will absorb us when we die; he was looking for something like tranquility he said that was “not so easy to acquire”;

the badu sat on his heels and rocked like a crib “twisting his hennaed hair between his fingers, and ready to spring up. He was too small and catlike, with far too many bracelets on his arm” but there “was something devilish and immature about his face”;

Jesus “was a man who had been a simple-hearted child, much loved and loving, nervous and obedient; quick to listen, happy to believe whatever he was told; observant in his prayers and rituals. Unremarkable, in fact. Except in this: by the time he was thirteen or so, he was the only one among his friends who behaved as if the customs and routines of their religion were anything more than tiresome duties. He was the only adolescent in the neighbourhood who demanded more from god than festivals and regimens and rules. He loved his prayers like a child. …his devotions did not make him mild and fat. He was as skittish, pale and narrow-shouldered as a goose. The neighbours called him Gally, a common nickname for a Galilean boy whose accent was strong, but ideal for Jesus. He was like a gally fly. He could not rest.”

If you like fictional biography, have a strong curiosity about biblical personages,  are drawn to something a little different and enjoy very creative writing, there is a good chance you will like this book.



2 thoughts on “Quarantine by Jim Crace”

  1. I’ve had his fiction in mind for a long time, and what you have to say about this one fits with my general understanding of his style. I’m not sure this is one I would gravitate towards, but I enjoyed reading about your experience with it all the same.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t have chosen this one to investigate his work either but for the fact that the online group was reading and discussing it. He has written so many though that I wouldn’t have had a good way of choosing. If you hear of a title that you would particularly recommend or have considered reading, do pass it along: I feel strongly about trying another of his novels.

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