I read The Rapture in advance of this week’s TV Book Club; I had no particular expectations of it – and it turned out to be the best book I’ve read so far this year. Certainly, if I’d read it last year, it would have been on my list of favourites for 2009.
A few years in the future, the climate has changed for the worse, and the summer heat is unbearable; religious groups have sprung up, proclaiming that the end times are near. In a town on the south coast of England, psychotherapist Gabrielle Fox is treating Bethany Krall, the teenage daughter of a preacher. Bethany savagely murdered her own mother, and is now being held in a secure institution. She’s a difficult patient – Gabrielle being only the latest in a string of therapists who have tried to understand the girl – but it’s in Gabrielle’s interests to succeed in treating Bethany. A car accident left Gabrielle paralysed from the waist down; Bethany is her chance to prove that she’s still up to the job. What’s particularly unusual about Bethany is that she is apparently able to foresee natural disasters – and she has predicted that the end of the world will come in a matter of months.
The Rapture is narrated by Gabrielle in the first person; her voice is descriptive, measured, and rather cold – for example, she describes her father’s demise from Alzheimer’s in terms that betray no feeling of sadness or loss. She is not a protagonist one can warm to easily, yet Jensen makes her a compelling presence for all that. Gabrielle’s sparring with Bethany is fascinating to read; despite the girl’s violent tendencies and physical superiority over Gabrielle, one senses that Bethany’s greatest weapon is her articulacy. Gabrielle’s profession requires her to be alert to the nuances of language, but now she’s up against someone who knows how to play that game, knows what buttons to push. That’s why Gabrielle feels threatened by Bethany – because the girl can attack her in an aspect of life where she still felt secure.
Jensen’s keen observations don’t stop at the relationship between these two characters. Convinced that she’s never going to be in a relationship again, Gabrielle is unprepared for when she meets Frazer Melville, a physicist who falls for her. We see the complex tangle of emotions that Gabrielle is feeling when Frazer first acts romantically towards her: ‘I can’t handle it. It will kill me. It will kill my belief that I am no longer a woman. No, worse, it will revive the hope that I am, and then all that can happen is that it will be shredded. [p. 112]’ Even such a positive development is not without its dangers to Gabrielle’s sense of self.
Nor is Jensen’s acuity limited to relationships. When Gabrielle and Frazer discover that Bethany’s prediction of an earthquake was accurate, they have a crisis of conscience – having withheld their knowledge that this disaster would occur, doesn’t that make them complicit in the resulting deaths? But, if they had alerted someone, who’d have believed them? It’s not just that Jensen is examining here the issue of responsibility when one has privileged knowledge; there’s a sense of deep uncertainty over how to handle new kinds of knowledge – Gabrielle and Frazer now know things that others will find impossible to believe; they don’t know the right thing to do because there is, by definition, no precedent on which to draw.
So, I like very much the way that Jensen observes people in her novel; one of the most impressive things about The Rapture is the way that she highlights the personal, human responses against the background of grand catastrophe. What’s also impressive is that the novel works from so many directions, even when they might seem to be contradictory. As I’ve already described, it works well as a character study; in the second half, when the time comes for The Rapture to be a disaster thriller, it doesn’t disappoint there, either. Jensen ramps up the pace, and provides the necessary spectacle and borderline (im)plausibility, leading to an entirely apposite conclusion.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s exactly that – that the text sets itself free of plausibility in the name of storytelling. But that’s the nature of Jensen’s story: it’s what the novel needs at that point, and it’s done with enormous panache. The Rapture is a novel that appeals to the head and the heart, and doesn’t skimp on either. As I said at the start, it’s my favourite read of the year to date.
Liz Jensen’s website