Christ's 40 days of fasting in the desert, repulsing Sat-an's wiles, furnishes the scope of Jim Crace's Quarantine (Viking Pounds 16.99).
Jesus is a naive and over-pious youth driven to seek out god (always lower case) in the desert. Bent on solitude and self-denial, he finds himself hounded by a quartet of fellow-fasters, all petitioning god for favours in recompense for this purification of the flesh in the hours between dawn and darkness.
In the belief that Jesus possesses special healing powers, they try to tempt him down from his high mountain cave with gifts of food and water. They call him "Gally" because of his Galilee accent. Jesus's mistake is to restore a dying man to life: Musa, the merchant, a gross, grotesque monster capable of murder, rape and theft, but also gifted with the honey-tongued guile of the born huckster. It is Musa whom Jesus perceives as the devil (in terror, but with some relief, as the proof of god's testing presence).
It is also Musa who will spread the word, the evangelist as travelling salesman, for whom stories are commodities, or what helps to market them. As the instrument of a new religion's genesis, he is a much more richly interesting character than Jesus. One lesson seems to be that good and evil can have outcomes quite divorced from volition. With its elegant paradoxes and mesmerising rhythmic prose, Crace's own story shapes this subtly enough to make a small masterpiece.
Madeleine Bourdouxhe was a writer admired by her contemporary, Simone de Beauvoir. It is easy to see why: female autonomy, a delight in Paris and its freedoms, the rapture of living in the present and seizing life with both hands. These are all at the heart of her novel Marie (translated by Faith Evans, Bloomsbury Pounds 10.99).
Marie's story, that of an educated middle-class wife experiencing love for her husband and passion for her young lover, runs the gamut of fierce emotion. It also connects the life of the mind and the senses through the most ordinary tasks and objects. The style is luminous and unforced, not dated by the 50-odd years since original publication.
The lush landscape of South India vibrates through Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (Flamingo Pounds 15.99), its shapes, light and colours making patterns of ripeness and decay. But this is a paradise riven by poverty and the contingencies of class and caste.
Roy's story unspools backwards in chapters alternating between events in the young lives of twin brother and sister Rahel and their consequences in the present. Recall forges an incantatory magical realism whose substance is the textures and perceptions of childhood. A lament for appalling losses, not the least of which severs the bond between the children, felt as an amputation. The intensity and depth of experience explored here, and the power of story and language make this first novel a striking achievement.
Indian fiction is flourishing. Beach Boy (Hamish Hamilton Pounds 14.99) is teacher Ardashir Vakil's first novel, a hectic coming of age in Bombay for the hero-narrator, Cyrus. Familiar adolescent preoccupations burgeon amid that city's busily evoked life.