What happened during Christ's 40 days out in the desert when he was tempted by Satan? What exactly compelled him to fast in the desert? Jim Crace's Quarantine answers these questions as well as tells a very different story of those forty days than one might expect. The idea of Jim Crace (Arcadia, Being Dead) writing a novel about Christ's forty days in the desert was an appealing one to me. Crace is a talented, creative writer. His perspective would be worth reading. It is. He does something with Quarantine that I didn't expect: Jesus is not the point of the story. Instead we have a woman named Miri out in the barren wilderness waiting for her husband Musa to die. Musa is a merchant and he has beaten her and mistreated her for years and now he is on death's doorstep. She is six months pregnant and she will soon be free. She sees five people walking towards the series of caves which she has taken shelter. One woman and four men. The fourth man is a gaunt young man: Jesus from Nazareth. He is young and pious and thoughtful. He feels called to take his quarantine in the desert, the others do it for personal reasons. But he takes quarantine one step farther: no food or water at all, not just after darkness. With Miri hiding Jesus stops at her cave looking for a dab of water before he begins the forty day quarantine. He blesses Musa and tells him to "be well", a common phrase. The next day it is clear that Musa will live and Miri will not be free.
Most of Quarantine deals with Musa and Miri's encounters with the other four pilgrims (as this is something of a pilgrimage) and Musa's mercantile behavior. There are periodic chapters told from the viewpoint of Jesus, but Jesus is only in a third of the novel. The treatment of Jesus is interesting in that it becomes clear that he isn't just a man (as evidenced by his unforeseen healing of Musa) and what the form of his temptations and belief is. He dreams of being a Messiah, a healer. He thinks he is just a man. When the quarantine is over everyone is changed, the pilgrims and Miri no less than Jesus.
Readers looking for a focused novel form treatment of Jesus's forty days of temptation and exile in the desert should probably look elsewhere because Christ is not the point of this book. Jesus seems to be more a framing device than anything else. Jim Crace has an impressive imagination and this is a fine story about how the quarantine might change a man and about humane nature in extreme situations, and the time spent on the pre-Messianic Christ is worth the price of admission.