In his new novel, Children of Paradise, Fred D’Aguiar, a British-Guyanese writer, returns to the Jonestown massacre, previously the subject of his 1998 narrative poem, ‘Bill of Rights’. D’Aguiar often examines brutal historical episodes from the perspective of a survivor or escapee. In Feeding the Ghosts (1997), the drowning of 140 slaves in 1798 so that the Liverpool-based owners could claim on the insurance is told through the story of Mintah, the one slave who did not die. In the new novel we have Joyce and her daughter, Trina, Americans who, having fallen for the messianic allure of ‘the preacher’ (a figure based on Jim Jones) and followed him to a promised land in Guyana along with a thousand others, now question their decision and want to leave.
Historical fiction has an inbuilt challenge for both author and reader, since we all know how the story must end. In this case, we know that 909 people (one-third of them children) were forced to commit suicide in 1978 by a paranoid megalomaniac who could not face losing control. D’Aguiar’s solution is to give us a novel that is, in his own words, ‘inspired by Jonestown, rather than in strict adherence to it’. He presents a commune much like Jonestown but creates his own characters and imagines their interactions — and, in Joyce and Trina, he gives us two people who belatedly see that the preacher and his vision are worse by far than the supposedly debased world from which his acolytes once fled.
In the commune, as in the real Jonestown, families are forced to live apart, children are beaten by sadistic armed guards, adults are tortured for the most venial of perceived sins, and all work endlessly in exchange for paltry food. All, of course, apart from a privileged few. The preacher is vain and hypocritical, fond of teaching people lessons (usually involving their humiliation and pain), purportedly for the good of the commune but in reality because, as we see when he is alone with his inner circle, he is a vicious, puerile and silly man as well as being, unfortunately, one who is able to convince vulnerable people to obey him.
Children of Paradise does deliver, but in the first 100 pages moves awkwardly. Conversations and events are often summarised rather than dramatised, as the old dictum ‘show, don’t tell’ is ignored. Eventually this tendency recedes, and we are more fully immersed in the story of a leader losing his mind, and of a woman and her daughter trying to flee his darkening domain.
It may be hard for some readers to imagine anyone either falling or remaining under the charmless preacher’s spell, but I would suggest that this is a deliberate gamble on D’Aguiar’s part rather than a failure of characterisation. By portraying a leader of such frustratingly low worth and manifest unsuitability, he shows us that part of this story’s tragedy is that the Jim Jones figure is able to get away with so much — and, as we know, to bring about such a profoundly sad end for those many poor, rudderless followers.
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