A mother and daughter seek to escape a commune headed by an autocratic preacher in D’Aguiar’s (The Longest Memory, 1995, etc.) evocative novel, based on tragic events that occurred in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana.
They’ve surrendered their birth certificates, their worldly possessions and their free wills to follow a charismatic leader to an exotic location in the midst of a jungle. But their 3,000 acre commune is far from the utopia some devotees envisioned. Instead, members endure beatings and theatrical tests of faith, including ones that involve absolute trust while scorpions or tarantulas skitter up and down their arms. The preacher often uses fear and deceptive, “miraculous” resurrections to maintain a firm grip on a community that includes Joyce, her 10-year-old daughter, Trina, and a caged gorilla named Adam, whose thoughts and actions provide a unique perspective to D’Aguiar’s narrative. Much as the preacher’s praise and special attention ensure cooperation and adoration from his adherents, fruit and back scratches guarantee the gorilla’s loyalty, at least for a time. But not all who live within the commune remain complacent. Some are labeled dissidents, and others, like Trina’s friend Ryan, try to run away or go into hiding. Joyce holds a trusted position keeping the commune’s books in order and makes occasional boat trips to the mainland office, where money often changes hands with local officials. She and the boat’s captain develop an attraction, and he entertains Trina with stories about a spirited spider named Anansi while he verbally spars with Joyce when she defends the commune and invites him to join. When the preacher increasingly begins to single out Trina, Joyce and her daughter plan their escape from a community so enthralled with his promises they dutifully practice when he instructs them to rehearse the ultimate act. Joyce insists that they limit their plan of escape to themselves, but Trina has a change of heart. D’Aguiar’s narrative adequately describes the brutality and manipulative efforts of a self-absorbed leader, and his depiction of Adam and the infusion of magical realism add an unusual and sympathetic aspect to the story.
The author provides insight into the psyche of cult members, but it’s still puzzling why any person would blindly follow such destructive directives.