Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett review – inside a cult

This Australian debut novel, based on the apocalyptic religious cult that culminated in the Jonestown massacre, is supple and punchy, with a hysterical edge

Jim Jones was an American cult leader who carried himself like Elvis and variously claimed to be the reincarnation of Lenin, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. The Peoples Temple, the movement he founded in 1955, was his stage; America’s underclass his fanbase. Charismatic and controlling, Jones dreamed of establishing a Marxist utopia, first in the forgiving climate of 1960s California and then at a ramshackle agricultural project in the jungles of Guyana. But he ventured too far up-river, dosed himself on barbiturates and spiralled towards demagoguery. This silver-tongued advocate for social justice and racial equality is now best remembered for instigating the mass murder-suicide of 918 cult members, 304 of them children. Until the events of 9/11, the 1978 Jonestown massacre represented the largest deliberate loss of American civilian life.

Four decades on, Australian author Laura Elizabeth Woollett has interviewed the survivors for a supple, punchy debut novel – an apocalyptic eve-of-destruction saga that paints a vivid portrait of life inside the Peoples Temple. Its focus on Jones’s besotted, compromised handmaidens builds on themes explored in Woollett’s 2016 short-story collection The Love of a Bad Man (which folded Jones in with Hitler, Ian Brady and Clyde Barrow). But Beautiful Revolutionary also takes its place in a burgeoning subgenre of fact-based tales of self-styled messiahs, bunking alongside Emma Cline’s The Girls (Charles Manson), Netflix’s Wild Wild Country (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) and Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Manson again). How to explain the popularity of these fevered tales of tribalism, gaslighting and mounting paranoia? Beautiful Revolutionary’s dark history sits securely in the past, isolated and quarantined, like a virus on a microscope slide. But it implicitly nods towards more recent convulsions.

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