(This review by Ed Wright was first published on September 8, 2018 in The Weekend Australian and is reprinted with permission.)
Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s Beautiful Revolutionary (Scribe, 400pp, $32.99) grabs attention from the beginning, not with narrative hooks but with the share penetration of its prose. Woollett’s debut novel is an imaginative refiguring of the Jonestown massacre story.
It is an ensemble composition that follows a range of characters as the People’s Temple, as the Jim Jones-led cult was known, regressed from an anti-racist, freedom-loving community organized around a loose fusion of Marxist and Christian beliefs, placed first in Indiana then California, to a paranoid, oppressive and finally self-destructing community in Guyana in South America.
Given that the events are known, it’s the why that provides the intrigue in Beautiful Revolutionary. Here Woollett excels with some of the best exploration of character you could hope for. It’s a combination of ruthless perspicacity and precise expression that works superbly; a return to an older set of literary values where the conflicted drives of characters, and the ambivalent capabilities of superior intelligence, were valued beyond likability.
The main character is Evelyn Linden, based on the real-life Carolyn Layton, Jones’ confidante and long-time mistress, who died, along with Jones and their young son Kimo, at Jonestown in 1978. Her journey to tragedy is so compelling because Woollett convincingly constructs the development of her fanaticism out of privileged girlish aimlessness:
The house is still there on Vine Street, placid in the sinking gold light. Maybe she was hoping to see it razed by the time she returned, the surrounding vineyards flattened and Lenny waiting for her in torn clothes. She makes do with parking. The silver music of the keys and brown rustle of grocery bags. This is the new life. This is the beautiful life. This is the time for loving. It’s there as soon as she walks in the door, a wafting garden funk. And then there’s Lenny, her beautiful boy-husband: barefoot, white shirt dirty with yardwork, smoking a joint and tuning her old peach-pink piano.
“I wasn’t sure when you were coming back…” He looked sheepish. Then signaling in smoke. “There wasn’t much to do.” Evelyn is about to say something about the fort of still-unpacked boxes, but stops herself. Puts down the bags instead. “I brought wine.”
Lenny holds out the joint and smiles, an innocent glimmer that makes her heart wince. She loves him so much, or wants to. Does it really matter which?
What’s so terrific in this description is the way there’s slant in everything, from the silver music of the keys, to the desire for conflagration, but also how, as a consequence of this slant creating an oscillating perspective, the narration is imbued with an enigmatic wit.
Woollett doesn’t confine her character study solely to Evelyn. There are a number of other fascinating characters, such as suppressed homosexual policeman, father and husband Gene Luce, and indeed the figure of Jim Jones himself. It’s a terrific novel and Woollett, following on from her 2016 short story collection The Love of a Bad Man, is a truly exciting writer.