In 'Quarantine,' a Great Story Mercilessly Retold Bret Anthony Johnston says that although he's not particularly religious, Jim Crace's version of the Christ-in-the-desert tale "always leaves me in a state of rapture, as if I'd received a revelation of my own."
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In 'Quarantine,' a Great Story Mercilessly Retold

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In 'Quarantine,' a Great Story Mercilessly Retold

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In 'Quarantine,' a Great Story Mercilessly Retold

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Bret Anthony Johnston teaches writing at Harvard University. And Jim Crace's "Quarantine" is his pick.

BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON: Here's how Jim Crace's novel "Quarantine" opens: Miri, a young pregnant woman, is holding vigil over her dying husband. This is in the Judean desert, 2,000 years ago. Death is coming slowly and with blistering heat; it turns her husband's tongue black. To travelers heading toward Jericho, Miri epitomizes a grieving wife. Really, though, she's rejoicing: Musa, her husband, has routinely beaten and raped her, and now, finally, his dying promises salvation. Or it would have, had Jesus not stopped in and miraculously ruined everything.

ANTHONY JOHNSTON: Ever since graduate school, where all of us wannabe writers studied Crace's novel like scripture, I've read the book about once a year. I can't get over the shimmering prose or the author's unwavering confidence or the way he freights the most innocuous detail with meaning and tension. Like when Jesus, upon leaving the dying Musa's tent, says, be well.

BLOCK: Within hours, Musa is, in fact, well, and that's when the sand really hits the fan.

BLOCK: Of everyone in the novel, including Jesus, this hideous brute alone recognizes the Messiah for who He is.

BLOCK: Actually, the ambiguity of the miracle fills me with hope, with reverence. Who among us can judge the articles of another's faith? "Quarantine" is a book about science and divinity, about hunger and heat and thirst and faith. But more than all of that, it's about perspective, about the uniquely human capacity to crave meaning, about our fundamental need to believe. I'm not a very religious person, but this novel, unlike most I read, always leaves me in a state of rapture, as if I had received a revelation of my own.

BLOCK: Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the forthcoming book, "Naming the World and other Exercises for the Creative Writer." You can read an excerpt of Jim Crace's Quarantine at NPR.org.

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