Quarantine by Jim Crace

September 17, 2009

Quarantine is a thoroughly researched book, spare but with philosophical heft. The details are exquisite and the psychology penetrating. I could not help but be impressed by the work that obviously went into creating this book. The writing is lyrical to the point of being poetic (“Snails shrank into their shells, and mimed the secret life of stones.”). In fact, the lyricism actually started to annoy me towards the end of the book when it became, to me, too rhythmic.

QuarantineThe Booker-shortlisted and Whitbread winning Quarantine is a re-telling of Jesus’ excursion into the desert for forty days of fasting (his “quarantine”). Jesus takes up a relatively small portion of the novel directly. Rather, the interactions of six others who are in geographic proximity to Jesus during his quarantine are frontmost in the narrative. To tell too much about their interactions, or about Jesus’ ordeal, would ruin the story should you read it. You should.

The novel opens with Miri waking to find her husband, Musa, feverishly ill. Miri and Musa are part of a caravan of traders. Everyone is sure he will soon die.

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.

For Miri, “[h]is death would rescue her.” Even so, she provides dutiful ministrations to “lure the fever out”. Musa’s kinsmen and the other members of the caravan do not have the same obligations, so leave Miri in the desert with the dying Musa and some provisions, mostly unwanted or inferior goods.

[I]t 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.

Miri soon sets out to dig a grave for Musa, in preparation for his death. The work is quite difficult, but Miri finds happiness, if not in the work, at least in the future she now sees for herself. That happy future was a future free of the abusive, domineering man she had married. She is sleeping in the grave she dug when the remaining cast members arrive.

While most “cavers” (people who went out for quarantine) stayed closer to civilization, five came as far out as Miri’s and Musa’s encampment.

But those who made it to the perching valley where Miri – half open-eyed – was sleeping, and where Musa and the fever devil were bargaining in the final hours of his life, sought something more remote and testing than requiems and communal prayers. There were five of them – not in a group, but stung 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….

The first four — their problems? Madness, madness, cancer, infertility — had started their journeys that morning from the same settlement in the valley. Though they had observed the proprieties of pilgrimage by keping some distance apart, they had at least endeavoured to keep each other within sight and hearing.

These first four find caves near the grave Miri has dug. The fifth, Jesus, goes off a distance to find a nearly inaccessible cave in which to pass his quarantine. He is more devout than the others. They will break their fast in the evening, he intends not to break his for the full forty days.

The novel unfolds over the forty days of the quarantine, bringing these various characters into contact with each other. The group dynamics are as fascinating as they are convincing. Even more, the individual characters are drawn with a master’s touch.

As a reader, I did not only pardon Miri’s spiteful coldness toward her dying husband, I shared it. And, yet, Crace makes Musa sympathetically human too:

Two men in one; opposing twins, they’d said when he was a boy and couldn’t reconcile his bossy tantrums with his bouts of weeping….

Now that Musa was a merchant and an adult, fearful of derision and defeat, he had learnt to suppress the lesser, tearful twin. Life was too hard and unforgiving for such a weakling. Anyone could drive that tender sibling to an easy bargain. Anyone could trespass in his tent. Anyone could make a fool of him. So Musa kept him hidden, a lost companion of his childhood, and showed the world his tougher self, the one which beat and bargained like no other, the trading potentate, the fist, the appetite. Why was this splendid fellow feared but not much liked by his cousins in the caravan? It baffled Musa, and it made him fierce. They are simply envious, he persuaded himself. But during those late and bitter drinking vigils outside his tent, his judgment was more fiery, and much simpler; They hate you, Musa. Hate them back!

The remaining characters are drawn with equal skill and we come to know them intimately. Each has his own desperation and these desperations collide and combine in sometimes surprising and sometimes inevitable ways. Crace weaves a legend that is more touching and more convincing than the original.

Quarantine2I cannot say it is the easiest read. Partly this is due to the realism of the characters and Crace’s unwillingness to allow his plot to stray to serve the ends of mercy. Good people suffer and evil people prosper. Further, the very nature of a quarantine demands tedium. This book is almost as far from a thriller as one can get. Still, Crace is a good storyteller and this is a compelling story. Crace always keeps several balls in the air and teases out each mystery for maximum effect. Quarantine is a brilliant novel. On the strength of this work, I will definitely seek out more of Crace’s novels.


I do not want to give away any more than I already have for those who have not read the book. However, it is a fascinating book. As I said above, the prose itself is sparkling, but more than that, the story is terrifically achieved.

Musa is one of the great villains of literature. And this is his story, not Jesus’. Musa steals the spotlight from the first, even as he lays dying in the tent, abandoned by all. I kept wanting him to die, but, of course, he could not. Only towards the end did I really begin to fully understand that the story belonged to Musa, the enchanter.

However, I do not want to imply that other characters were not vital to the story or were not fascinating in their own right. Miri, Marta, and Aphas are all sympathetic and necessary. Jesus does have a gravitational pull on the others, though he and they interact very little. And Badu is an excellent surprise, kept nicely until the very end. Crace’s cast is almost perfect.

But it is not quite perfect. I was not particularly impressed with Shim. He was too flat a foil for Musa. Of all the characters, he is the only one that, at times, seemed to act only because Crace told him to act. I never felt I had an adequate grasp of his motivations and the power of Musa over him. I get that he was something of a charlatan himself, but that would have seemed to make him, in many ways, less susceptible to the charms and bluffs of Musa.

The structure of the novel is brilliant. We get to meet and become somewhat acquainted with the travellers before Musa revives and takes over. The slow disintegration of Jesus coincides with Musa’s slow consolidation of power. Jesus’ death and Musa’s fall perfectly balance the climax. And the final denouement is one of the best I have read.

The ending would have been too neat if Musa died. Besides, Musa has to spread his new gospel of Jesus. Who better to grow the legend of Jesus than Musa the charismatic and practiced liar? Not only does he have a newfound profit motive, but he truly believes.

Crace’s legend is so convincing in its details, it leaves me awed. This is the type of reworking that could go horribly wrong or wonderfully right. Going wrong is much more likely than success. But Crace pulls it off magnificently.

For anyone else that has read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. If you have not read it, I encourage to read it and return with your thoughts.