Through the eyes of a young girl and her mother plotting to escape, the story of the Jonestown massacre of 1978 takes on new dimensions in a surprising novel that contrasts a dreamlike style with the terrifying paranoia of the Guyana jungle compound where 909 Americans died in a murder-suicide pact.
Fred D'Aguiar, a novelist, playwright and poet raised in Guyana until he was 12, reimagines the tragedy that stunned the world in Children of Paradise (HarperCollins, $25.99) wrapping the Jim Jones-led commune in a gauzy magical realism that leaves much of the horror just off the page. The result is a slow racheting up of dread leavened by enough hope to keep us riveted to the end.
Thirty-three people escaped from the commune on the day of the mass suicide, some by walking miles through the jungle, others surviving an airport ambush of an American investigative mission led by California Rep. Leo Ryan. And so D'Aguiar keeps us wondering: Will Trina and her mother, Joyce, be among the handful of Jonestown members who survive?
The line between magical thinking and reality becomes increasingly hard to discern as D'Aguiar creates a suffocating atmosphere that explores the use of charisma and religious fanaticism as tools of repression. Most powerful of all, he takes a well-documented atrocity and tells it in a new and arresting way.