This is a critical discussion of the novel, Quarantine, described as “Winner of the Whitbread Novel of the Year and a Booker finalist: a controversial novel of faith and mystery about a group of desert travelers and their encounter with Jesus.” As a critical discussion, the entirety of the work is discussed. In other words—spoilers!
Jim Crace’s novel, Quarantine, begins with the near-death of a man named Musa. It’s not often that a coming death is actually hoped for, but as Crace describes the husband’s awful treatment of his wife, Miri, he gives the reader reason to celebrate this death and cause to despair when we discover that Musa will live. Five wanderers are introduced who are making their way into the wilderness for a forty-day fast in seclusion from the world and come to where Musa and Miri have set up camp. Musa, in his typical money-hungry merchant manner, soon finds ways to exploit the wanderers, claiming the wilderness they have stumbled into and the caves they sought shelter in belong to him and require the payment for the duration of their quarantine. Four of the travelers comply and are taken by Musa’s gift for storytelling and his readily available food. The last traveler, however, is missing. Because the missing traveler is said to be a healer and each of the four embarking on a quarantine has a need for healing, they begin a nightly ritual of going to the precipice near the cave where Gally, as they call him, is hiding. Gally does not give in to the temptation to heal them or to take the food and drink they taunt him with. Crace has named the Gally Jesus and portrays him as the son of the Christian God who is there to begin his ministry. While the Bible does mention Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness being tempted, Crace’s Jesus does not entirely fit the characteristics and personality of the biblical Jesus, though he does provide an interesting character.
The days of the quarantine stretch on and each of the unique travelers deal with the time differently. Marta finds a friend in Miri and the two spend time weaving a birth mat. The old man, Aphas, tries to survive the day in as little pain as he can, while Shim, the young, healthy traveler, lays on rocks praying. The crazy badu catches bugs and animals to eat when the day’s fast has ended. The ever-unpleasant Musa is growing restless and bored with his limited sales prospects. He has decided he wants and deserves to have the woman traveler, Marta. He creates an elaborate scheme to be left alone near her cave so that he can violate her. The same night a violent windstorm destroys Musa and Miri’s tent, much of the scrubland, and the Gally. After burying him, all possessions are packed up, and the travelers, plus Musa and Miri, leave the scrubland almost ten days before the end of the quarantine. The badu escaped in the night with Musa’s goats, surprising everyone with his craftiness. In his final act as landlord, Musa forces Shim and Aphas to carry much of his load, then loads his wife up with a very heavy pack so that he can walk with nothing. In what can only be viewed as a much deserving twist of fate, Shim and Aphas abandon Musa’s things. In Miri’s finest moment in the novel, she, too, discards Musa’s things and runs off with Marta to find a better life, away from the hard hand and bitter control of her husband. Musa is left with nothing except what was always most precious to him—his money and goods.
Though Marta, who is subjected to the worst of Musa’s dark desires, is the one who has the hardest time in the quarantine, she is the only one who’s quarantine was successful. She came to be rid of her barrenness and left pregnant. Miri, too, benefited in finding a friend and a way to be rid of Musa after his near death experiences failed. Shim, Aphas, and the badu seem to be unchanged by the quarantine. The Gally, perhaps the most changed of all, is seen by Musa coming as a spirit to begin his ministry. Musa has the most to be grateful for. He was healed of a sickness that nearly killed him and has a wife who is dutiful, despite his harsh treatment of her. He has a child on the way and even made a little money after his family left him for dead. But, he acts the most ungrateful of them all, takes advantage of everyone around him, and in the end, pays for his selfishness in the ultimate way—by losing all he had that was truly valuable so that he could keep things that are only perceived to be valuable. Crace shows that the true value is finding those who can help you in a time of need.
My rating: 4 out of 5 = really liked it