On the 18th of November 1978, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project – better known as Jonestown – made headline news around the world through the mass murder-suicide of over 900 of its inhabitants, orchestrated by cult leader Jim Jones. In her latest novel, The Girl from Jonestown, Sharon Maas transports us back to this horrific event through an engrossing and thoughtful mix of fact and fiction.
The narrative begins in September 1978 and is primarily told from the perspectives of two engaging characters: Zoe, a journalist who has just returned home to Guyana after spending three years attempting to distance herself from the tragedies of her past, and Lucy, a terrified mother who wants to escape Jonestown. Their paths cross in a local shop, where Lucy, tasked with arranging vital supplies for the settlement, begs Zoe to help her, to call her mother in the USA, to get her out of the monster’s lair. Ever a journalist, Zoe is unable to resist the intrigue of these curious events unfolding so close to home, nor is she able to forget the clear desperation in Lucy’s eyes. So, she commits herself to two seemingly simple objectives: write an article about Jonestown and rescue Lucy. But, when her cleverly-won research trip to the settlement coincides with the “invasion” of Congressman Ryan and Jones’ subsequent frenzied reaction, Zoe becomes the leader of an unplanned, thrilling escape mission out of Jonestown.
This novel deals with a multitude of dark themes – murder, suicide, rape, the list goes on – as is necessary when recounting the chilling reality of this destructive cult and mass murder. Yet, the author has simultaneously allowed her fictionalised version of events to become more than a simple retelling of death and tragedy. Maas skilfully separates the evil of Jonestown from the beauty of the surrounding nation, Guyana – a country that, many of us, know regrettably little about. Away from the autocratic Jim Jones and his terrifying cult, the novel allows the reader to explore the remote North-West District of this South American nation, to navigate “the gridwork of creeks” lined with “miles of tangled mangroves” and to hear the sounds of the jungle, the “song of a million souls calling out their kinship”.
Alongside these fascinating explorations of Guyana’s jungles and waterways, the novel also features a range of characters who, although for the most part are fictional, succeed in bringing this historical event to life, more than forty years after the tragedy occurred. Maas combines the basic historical facts and even real dialogue from the events – taken from the vast number of tapes recorded in Jonestown – with many characters born from her own imagination, who bring with them their own fictional backstories, characteristics, and motivations. These feel authentic, are engaging, and provide further complexity and opportunity for character development to an already interesting story. Another enjoyable aspect is that the plot is driven by a number of strong female characters – both among the victims and among the perpetrators.
A thrilling and haunting novel from Sharon Maas, I would recommend The Girl from Jonestown to anyone looking for an emotional, female-driven historical read or to those with an interest in true crime. Certainly not for the faint-hearted, the novel is engrossing, enlightening, and empowering, whilst also respecting its role as a heart-wrenching retelling of a true tragedy.