A retelling of the Jonestown massacre tragedy examines the warped tactics of repression

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Children of Paradise.</span> Fred D’Aguiar. HarperCollins. 384 pages. $25.99.
Children of Paradise. Fred D’Aguiar. HarperCollins. 384 pages. $25.99.

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, 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 to hope to keep us riveted to the end.

D’Aguiar drives the story with unspoken tension. The multi-hued school children chant and laugh, unfettered by prejudice and racism — but they’re held in a compound from which they cannot escape. Parents, drugged into oblivion if they resist, are kept separate from the children under the commune rule that all adults are parents to all children. Guards remain blindly obedient, partly from fear, partly from hope of salvation. And at the center of it all, the cult leader they call Father or the preacher wears custom-tailored Elvis-style outfits while indulging his own maniacal whims, inflicting vicious punishments at the slightest flicker of doubt that he is carrying out God’s will.

It’s a socialist paradise from outside and a slave camp inside, and into that dreadful space D’Aguiar introduces a fictional girl and her mother.

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. Ryan was killed along with an NBC correspondent, a cameraman, a newspaper photographer and a family member. And so D’aguiar keeps us wondering: Will Trina and her mother, Joyce, be among the handful of Jonestown members who survive?

Trina has become the preacher’s favorite exhibit to keep the people under control after she seemingly defies death twice. Once, she walked too close to the cage that holds a gorilla the preacher keeps on the compound as a dangerous pet, yet another larger-than-life demonstration of his power. The gorilla grabs Trina — mostly out of curiosity — and she faints in his grasp. The preacher makes everyone believe she has died, with the use of some face powder, and then he “resurrects” her for the crowds.

This is followed by a test of faith in which Trina allows a live scorpion and tarantula to walk on her at the preacher’s insistence. Once again, Father has wowed the people. They believe.

Directly under the gaze of a madman, Trina is in a precarious spot. She and her mother contemplate fleeing on a riverboat that makes occasional trips to the compound to deliver people and supplies. And they have one ally the preacher doesn’t know about: the gorilla named Adam, who understands a lot more than the preacher realizes.

As the girl and her mother covertly try to work out their options, with their gorilla accomplice, an ominous drumbeat in the camp grows louder, with the preacher insisting on suicide drills and stockpiling cyanide.

As the story heads toward its conclusion, the line between magical thinking and reality becomes increasingly hard to discern as D’Aguiar explores the power of the mind to remain free even under the utmost deprivation and repression. He uses a poet’s lyricism to create a world in which every rustle in the jungle could spell safety or menace, playing with perception. Are they escaping or are they just imagining they are? Is the gorilla helping or does he represent a break with reality?

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. You can’t teach if the people won’t listen, and D’Aguiar demands that we listen.

Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.

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