Browser reviews: Original take on the Jonestown Massacre

New paperbacks from Laura Elizabeth Woollett, Taylor Jenkins Reid and Hernan Diaz

 More than 900 members of the People’s Temple cult died by  cyanide in 1978. Photograph: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

More than 900 members of the People’s Temple cult died by cyanide in 1978. Photograph: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

 

Beautiful Revolutionary

Laura Elizabeth Woollett

In her latest novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, Laura Elizabeth Woollett recounts one of the world’s most infamous disasters – the Jonestown Massacre – with originality. Woollett reclaims victims’ narratives from sensationalist headlines and re-educates her readers through sharp, expertly crafted fiction.

The work follows the religious organisation the People’s Temple from Evergreen Valley to Jonestown Guyana, where the mass suicide occurs. The novel’s narrator alternates between chapters: from a young couple whose marriage dissolves under Temple leader Jim Jones; to a closeted police officer; a mixed race couple; Jones wife, and his lover’s younger sister.

Woollett shifts time periods to illustrate characters lives before and after the People’s Temple, highlighting their internal decay. Her economy of language is striking; certain chapters are a page in length, yet relay a multitude. A clear indication of her skill as a short story writer was made evident in her previous work The Love of a Bad Man.

However, there is no escaping the “revolutionary suicide”, which froze Jonestown in popular culture. It is injected into every carefully composed sentence in which Woollett conflates violence with joy. Her depiction is remarkable for being unremarkable. “Most of the people, the ones still living, are huddled quietly, swallowing quietly.” Anna Joyce

Daisy Jones & The Six

Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones & The Six, in which a wild Californian singer and a tension-riven 1970s rock band recount how they united for their best-selling album, was a pre-publication smash the second it was optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s company for an Amazon series.

Witherspoon has excellent taste. Fleetwood Mac is an obvious prototype, but Taylor Jenkins Reid has created her own fictional monster here. Inspired by the cautionary tales, public charades and behind-the-scenes miseries of the era (today, this “collab” would likely be recorded in separate studios), she has produced something new, funny and ultimately lovely.

With a delicious sleight of hand, the novel unfolds as a document of the glorious yet destructive chemistry between two stars: drug-addicted Daisy and The Six’s rehabilitated frontman Billy Dunne. But it is as much a tribute to the men and women of the supporting cast – even the unattractively bitter ones – who help magic the most resonant of cultural moments into life. Song lyrics included. Laura Slattery

In the Distance

Hernan Diaz

Håkan, a young Swedish boy, arrives on the turbulent American continent in the 1850s where he loses his brother Linus, and spends the following years trying to reach New York to find him. Unpredictable, with a malevolent thrum, the novel reads like a fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm – not least in that Håkan grows so tall as to be thought a giant, his colossal loneliness only overshadowed by the hopelessness of his odyssey. Grim too is his journey, where he meets cruelty, deprivation and disease. He travels through deserts and canyons, everything a wilderness, everywhere danger.

In an otherwise chaotic and pointless existence, the book examines the power of knowledge to transform and comfort, doing so through the teachers and guides who befriend Håkan, who open his heart to meaning, and to devastating losses. Underpinning everything is his indestructible but unwelcome compulsion to continue living, less determination than stoical resignation. Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize 2018, this strange, sinister tale bewitches, making the wild west of America as intense and otherworldly as any dark myth. Ruth McKee

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