(Australian writer Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the author of Beautiful Revolutionary and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her collection of articles and stories for the site is here. Visit her website at http://lauraelizabethwoollett.com.)
In 1973, as a group of American “pioneers” were clearing land in the northwest of Guyana to construct the settlement that would become known as Jonestown, Guyanese author Sharon Maas moved to the region with a group of friends, and similar intentions: to escape political upheaval and live off the land. Maas describes the experience in an article for this website as “a constant struggle against the elements,” and relatively short-lived. When news broke about the Jonestown massacre five years later, Maas was living in Paris. However, decades on, the tragedy and Maas’ connection to the land it took place on continued to haunt her, inspiring her thirteenth novel, The Girl from Jonestown.
Like Maas in the seventies, The Girl from Jonestown’s Guyanese protagonist Zoe Quint is young, anti-establishment, and well-travelled. She is also a journalist, with a healthy scepticism about both America and Americans fleeing the failings of their nation to live communally on foreign soil. These qualities make Zoe a captivating narrator, as well as a convenient entry-point into the Jonestown story, as seen through Guyanese eyes.
That said, The Girl from Jonestown does not actually begin from Zoe’s perspective, but that of Lucy Sparks – the titular girl from Jonestown. Lucy, a young African-American Temple member, is drawn in broad strokes, as are the Temple’s main overlords: Jim Jones, his right-hand woman Moira, and a guard, Bruno Grimm. Lucy’s voice, conveyed through furtive diary entries and the limited third-person narration around them, is by turns frantic, furious, and self-flagellating, yet ultimately one-note. Her desperation overshadows her character.
There is certainly an argument to be made about the way harsh communal living circumstances, paired with the constant threat of death, could strip most people of individuality. From an authorial standpoint, the inclusion of Lucy’s perspective is also understandable: as a Temple member, she has first-hand access to information that Zoe does not; as an African-American woman, she represents Jonestown’s largest demographic. However, compared with Zoe – who moves through her environment freely, and whose history, motivations, and affiliations are for the most part revealed organically, by way of her actions and interactions – Lucy lacks complexity as a narrator. Her chapters, while dealing with matters of life and death, are presented at a remove by way of the interrupted diary format, and thus are short on suspense.
This is particularly clear when measuring Lucy’s descriptions of Jones (“HIM, that devil”) and Moira (“The bitch!”) against Zoe’s, which are comparatively lyrical and rich in subtext. Take, for example, Zoe’s first glimpse of Moira on the boat from Georgetown:
She bore that worn-out look of white nomads, people who washed their panties in rivers and slept under the stars in sleeping bags or hammocks. It’s the martyred, emaciated look of a survivor, a foreigner who has learned to bear amoebae, dysentery, hepatitis and worse with patience, and even pride.
I found myself thinking that The Girl from Jonestown would have been a stronger novel had Maas trusted her readers (including those unfamiliar with the history of Jonestown) to simply follow the story as it unfolds through Zoe’s eyes, and to recognise the humanity of Jonestown’s residents as she does. A more limited narrative mode could have also provided more space to tease out Zoe’s backstory. There are references throughout the novel to Zoe’s past journalistic work, groups of American utopia-seekers and missionaries she has encountered on the road. Exploring these episodes in Zoe’s life might have lent additional light and shade to her perceptions of Jonestown, as well as Maas’ portrait of the era that the novel takes place in.
Maas does not adhere religiously to the history of Jonestown, inventing characters and playing loose with the timeline of November 17-18. In itself, this isn’t an issue. Yet extraneous references to aspects of Jonestown’s history can jar as a result, at least for a reader familiar with the subject matter. In particular, I questioned the inclusion of Jonestown’s basketball team and a custody battle over a child called Patrick Hugo Stenton (a stand-in for John Victor Stoen), when neither of these elements had narrative pay-off.
Another downside of Maas’ approach is that the history is, in many ways, far more morally complex than the drama presented in The Girl from Jonestown. Of course, this is the elephant in the room for every novelist taking on this subject. Yet Maas’ Jonestown is, by and large, a world of goodies and baddies. Moira plots the mass-murder of Jonestown’s residents because she is, quite simply, a racist. The victims of the final White Night become background noise as Zoe fends off a rape from Jones while his loyal guard, Bruno, holds her down. None of this is as interesting – or chillingly banal – as the way Jones groomed followers over time, manipulating shame, ambition, and idealism, weaponizing White Feminism and Saviourism, and creating an environment where the ends always justified the means. The Girl from Jonestown arguably succeeds as both a semi-historical thriller and a decentering of the Western gaze when it comes to the tragedy that, for many Westerners, is still synonymous with Guyana. As a realistic plunge into the murk of human morality, however, it falls short.