I first came across Melbourne author Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s work when she participated in a Noir at Bar event I helped organise last year. That night she read one of the tales from her short story collection, The Love of a Bad Man. It is tempting to view her debut novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, as an extension of that collection – twelve terrific stories told from the point of view of the lovers and wives of various bad men in history. Indeed, if I remember correctly, one of the pieces in The Love of a Bad Man concerned the Reverend Jim Jones, a very bad man and the central focus of Beautiful Revolutionary.
Woollett’s novel spans the period of history from the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June 1968 to the events that occurred in November 1978, when over 900 people died from drinking poison at the People’s Temple Agricultural Project, better known as ‘Jonestown’ in Guyana, founded by cult leader, Jim Jones. When I was younger, I remember Jonestown being described as a mass suicide but, as relatives of the dead have since pointed out, it was really a mass murder, as all but a few drank the poison under duress.
Although we never hear the story from his point of view, the book revolves around Jones, a self proclaimed socialist saviour, but also a sexual predator, quack faith healer and an increasingly unhinged demagogue. Around his myth and reality, Woollett creates a large cast of detailed point of view characters. Chief among these is young flower child, Evelyn, and her, somewhat ineffectual, conscientious-objector husband, Lenny, both of whom become involved in the People’s Temple.
Evelyn becomes Jones’ lover, then his chief lieutenant, while Lenny goes in a very different direction. Other fascinating characters include Jones’ long-suffering wife, Rosaline, and Gene Luce, a rural cop turned cult member.
A huge amount has been written about Jones and movement, most recently Jeff Guinn’s excellent history, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, which is on my to be read list. Beautiful Revolutionary does not provide a clear, linear history of the People’s Temple and the events leading up to the mass deaths in Jonestown. Rather it ducks and weaves between parts of the story.
Woollett has done her research on Jones and his movement, a weird mixture of socialist Third Worldism, New Age mysticism and Maoist style criticism/self criticism. She has also drunk deep of the culture and zeitgeist of the time, which shows in the numerous tiny little ways she breathes life into her depiction of the death of the counterculture and the mutation of one part of it into something disturbing and violent.
The other highlight of this book is Woollett’s prose style, which beautifully conveys the details of what is going on while at the same time wielding a less is more touch and power of suggestion, to maximise the psychological and physical tension of the story. Her drip feed depiction of the multitude of techniques, subtle and not so subtle, used by Jones to groom cult members and keep them in line once they have fallen under his influence, is particularly fascinating and, at time, quite terrifying.
Beautiful Revolutionary is part twisted love story, part dark, noirish, crime novel. I recommend it.