Children of Paradise
- By Fred D’Aguiar
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Carrie Callaghan
- March 25, 2014
A moving and dramatic imagining of the Jonestown tragedy
In 1978, a slick-haired man wearing dark glasses oversaw the poisoning of more than 900 adults and children in the jungle of Guyana, all in the ostensible pursuit of Christ and Paradise. Now, it’s easy to be glib about the Jonestown tragedy. After all, it is a little difficult for most of us to understand why so many people would follow their leader into death. We’ve even incorporated a reference to their blind loyalty into our cultural lexicon: drinking the Kool Aid. But this is where fiction works its magic. Bizarre details aside, Jonestown was a tragedy, and Children of Paradise reminds us of the complicated humanity of those who died.
I hesitate here to summarize the plot. This is a novel that grabs you, like the jaws of a jungle-dwelling python, and refuses to let go. There’s tension from the first page, all while the specter of mass suicide hangs over the characters. Any summary will reveal some of what happens, at the cost of deflating that delicious tension. (In fact, I plead with you not to read the jacket copy or publisher’s blurb for this book. It includes a description of something that doesn’t happen until the final twenty pages of the story which is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a spoiler.) So, if you’re willing to take my word for it, stay here for one more sentence of this review and then no more: This is a moving, dramatic book, and you should read it.
The review must go on, however, with a bit of exposition. After the commune’s pet gorilla, Adam, catches ten-year-old Trina and squeezes her to the point of passing out, their preacher stages a miraculous resurrection. The precocious child plays along but the incident creates, or perhaps deepens, cracks in the faith of her and her mother, Joyce. Soon, we see other cracks: the fissures in the community created by the tension of group living and the hairline fractures in the preacher’s mental health. Commune guards wield sticks to prevent members from deviating from community rules in any fashion, and one child suffers a gauntlet of blows for stealing a loaf of bread to share with his starving playmates.
Meanwhile, Joyce and Trina have become friends with the amiable riverboat captain who ferries them on Joyce’s periodic errands to the capital. His company provides a reprieve from commune strictures, and Joyce suspects that her fondness for him is beginning to run beyond friendly affection. But fraternization with outsiders is prohibited and ground for punishment from the capricious, all-powerful preacher.
That preacher becomes more strained and paranoid. He demands uncompromising loyalty from his followers, and subjects them to regular tests of trust. In an early one, he asks Trina and Joyce to extend treats to the gorilla, who they fear after his recent squeezing incident. When the animal stumbles while taking Joyce’s proffered treat and injures her, the preacher cites the incident to the congregation as proof of Joyce’s insufficient faith. Trust, he says, “is so basic an instinct that even a gorilla can detect it.” Even a “dumb beast” can see Joyce’s failings, so they should imagine what God – and by implication, the preacher himself – can know. And yet when we learn that the gorilla was drugged, the event a set-up, the preacher’s test takes a sinister cast.
Although the preacher controls Adam and holds the gorilla’s trust, which becomes evident through periodic dips into Adam’s point of view, the animal evolves throughout the course of the book to serve as a counterpoint to the preacher’s sociopathy. Adam grows more human while the preacher devolves into his paranoia; Adam opens his heart while the preacher makes us wonder if he ever had one. It is suggestive, after all, that Adam has a name — and what a name! — but the preacher does not. The preacher, in fact, may bear more likeness to the spider god Anansi of the riverboat captain’s tales: a human and spider combined into one, who displays four of his spider legs as human limbs and conceals the other four to use for playing tricks.
This question of humanity – what it means to be human and who deserves that label – lies at the heart of Children of Paradise. Fred D’Aguiar is a talented writer, and in pursuit of that investigation this story balances lyrical beauty, essential philosophical questions, and drama. He asks what role faith plays in a person’s convictions, how much parents owe their children, and what salve (or salvation) our stories provide. Also a poet and a playwright, D’Aguiar combines the best of each of those disciplines without succumbing to overindulgence in either word-play or dialogue.
The result is a memorable novel that refuses to give easy answers but encourages us to remember how complicated life and humanity are. We may have a natural tendency to distance ourselves from events, like Jonestown, that we don’t understand, but D’Aguiar reminds us that we only need to scratch the surface to find a little bit of ourselves beneath.
Carrie Callaghan’s short fiction has appeared in Silk Road, The MacGuffin, Weave Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Editorial Board of the Washington Independent Review of Books.