Home / Books / Continent (1986) / The Gift of Stones (1988) / Arcadia (1992) / Signals of Distress (1994) / Quarantine (1997) / Being Dead (1999) / The Devil’s Larder (2001) / Six (2003) / The Pesthouse (2007) / All That Follows (2010) / Harvest (2013)
Quarantine, Jim Crace’s fifth novel, retells the Biblical story of Christ’s forty days in the desert. In Crace’s version, Jesus is one of a handful of people who have retreated to the Judean wilderness in search of enlightenment or purification. On his way into the desert, Jesus stumbles across the tent of Musa, a selfish and brutal trader who has fallen ill and been abandoned by all but his long-suffering and pregnant wife. Musa’s health revives; the ‘miracle’ is credited to the mysterious Galilean, who has hidden himself in an almost inaccessible cave to pray and fast. Musa lingers in the area, hoping for another encounter with the holy man while shrewdly exploiting the quarantiners and recovering his strength.
Jesus’ extreme commitment to the discipline of quarantine means that he is soon weak to the point of death. Musa’s rape of Marta is the last straw for Miri, his oppressed wife. The two women abandon Musa and leave the desert together to shape a new life for themselves and Miri’s baby. But Musa is a survivor: encouraged by a fleeting vision of a resurrected Jesus, he will set off once more along the caravan ways and ‘trade the word’ of the man in the desert who ‘defeated death’.
Many of the themes of Crace’s earlier work are given a sharp new twist in Quarantine. The quarantiners’ small community is subjected to the same intense observation and analysis as any of Crace’s other communities. The curiosity about transitional moments in social and world history here leads Crace, an atheist, to consider what real events might lie behind the dawn of Christianity. The characters represent different aspects of man’s rejection of nature: Jesus and Musa, in their quite different ways, see themselves as outside or above nature, while only one of the quarantiners has any specific ‘survival skills’ at all. The writing in Quarantine is extremely evocative and engrossing; Crace’s voice, always assured, here reaches new levels of control as he explores the characters’ extreme states of mind and depicts the forbidding desert setting of their quarantine. Quarantine was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Best Novel Prize.
Quarantine appeared in the same year as Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son, a first-person reshaping of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Reviewing Mailer’s novel, John Updike found much to praise, but ended by contrasting Mailer with Crace:
‘Mailer, serious as he is…does not gives us what the English writer Jim Crace gives us in his novel Quarantine...Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness…are dramatized with an archaeological command of the texture of life in Herod’s Palestine and with a troubling heterodoxy. Jesus is reconceived as ‘Gally’, a ‘boy’ besotted with prayer and visions whose programme of total deprivation kills him in thirty days…Such an assaultive retelling, far from smoothing the rough spots in the Gospel account, raises new ones. Crace is a writer of hallucinatory skill and considerable cruelty. The beatings and thievery of the ancient world, its intimate murderous commerce with animals, and its bestial treatment of women are not stinted, nor the compromised quality of religious experience, nor the deadly beauty of desert mountains…’ (The review can be found in Updike’s 1999 collection of essays and criticism More Matter.)
It is not the first time that words such as ‘visionary’ and ‘hallucinatory’ have been used of Crace’s writing. (The tired and thirsty characters of Quarantine are themselves subject to hallucinations.) As far as I know, however, Updike is the first to comment on Crace’s ‘cruelty’. Sudden, surprising acts of violence feature in all Crace’s books; the characters are sometimes ‘cruel’ to one another, or experience what might be called a cruel fate. In Quarantine, the brutal trader Musa beats his donkey and has it flung over a cliff, delivers a crippling blow to a man who has challenged his authority, abuses his wife and rapes and beats her friend Marta. Nobody would be sorry to see Musa die, yet it is Musa who is ‘resurrected’ by Jesus at the beginning of the novel, vouchsafed a strange vision at the end, and decides to become an evangelist of sorts, trading in stories of how he was healed by the holy man he met in the desert. Poetic justice is absent from Crace’s fictional world (as it is from the Gospels: only the devils recognise Jesus for what He is).
The original meaning of ‘quarantine’ is ‘a period of forty days’, hence the title of Crace’s novel of a forty-day sojourn in the desert. But the word’s modern English significance – a period of isolation imposed on people to prevent the spread of contagion – is clearly invoked by the frequent references to health and sickness. Musa’s sickness and recovery set the novel in motion. The quarantiners hope to be cured of cancer, infertility, malaise; and Miri and Marta’s escape certainly represents, to them, a victory for life. The Christian message as summarised by Musa at the end of the novel is not ‘Love thy neighbour’ but ‘Be well’. Having starved himself to death, Jesus gives rise in Musa’s shadowed mind to the notion that death itself can be defeated. ‘ "Be well," he told me. And I am well.’ It is not the power of the word but the character’s own resilience that enables them to emerge from quarantine. Crace’s novel refutes the idea of a divine Christ but abounds with optimism and encouragement for those who see the desert for what it is, a place of vibrant beauty as well as harshness.
Quarantine was widely reviewed, on-line and off-, in UK and American media. Here are a few starting-points:
David B. Livingstone, editor of the e-magazine Spike, called Quarantine ‘a rather strange, occasionally beautiful, book’ but was left unsatisfied by the depiction of Christ. Click here to go to his review:
An excellent and thought-provoking review by Gary Kamiya in the e-magazine Salon concludes ‘the ironies of Crace’s tale are outmatched by affirmation – perhaps an affirmation of faith, perhaps merely of humanity, but affirmation nonetheless’. Click here to go to this review.
Frank Kermode suggests that Crace’s fiction can be described as ‘crystalline…[at] the end of the fiction spectrum where the novel is most like a poem, most turned in on itself, most closely wrought for the sake of art and internal cohesion’. Click here to go to The New York Times Book Review where you can search for the Quarantine piece, but be aware that The New York Times on the web does require users to register (it’s free). (Alternatively contact me for help.)
Miyahara Kazunari, of the Department of Humanities at Yamaguchi University, has written an absorbing paper on the novel’s religious and mythic dimensions, including a discussion of the role of Gally/Jesus as Musa/Satan’s ‘second self’ and the (possible) links between the nameless, unintelligible badu and Buddhism. To read this paper click here.
Crace on Quarantine
‘I no longer use the term agnostic as a shield…atheism is something richer than just the bleak and heartless absence of belief.’ Click here to read Crace’s introduction to the novel for American readers.
Quarantine on stage
‘The aim has been…to give a live audience a different, but equally rewarding experience of the story.’ Click here to read Ben Payne on adapting Quarantine for the stage.