TagLiz Jensen

Liz Jensen, The Uninvited (2012)

Liz Jensen’s The Rapture was one of my favourite reads a couple of years back; now she has returned with what could be seen very much as a companion piece. The Uninvited also sees a scientist investigating unusual human phenomena which turn out to herald apocalypse, and also shares a focus on the personal side of events.

Jensen’s protagonist this time around is Hesketh Lock, an anthropologist investigating corporate scandals. Hesketh’s latest assignment takes a bizarre turn when Sunny Chen, the whistle-blower from a Taiwanese timber company, throws himself into a pulping machine. That’s only the first of several similar incidents worldwide; at the same time, children begin to kill their families violently. Hesketh, a pattern-spotter by both profession and inclination, searches for a connection – even when his experiences lead him down a path that goes against all his rational instincts.

Again as with The Rapture, Jensen’s protagonist comes under pressure in the areas of life where he feels it most acutely. Hesketh’s ability to analyse and find patterns was where he felt most secure, and of course now that’s now being undermined by the apparently irrational crisis. However, he’s also feeling tested in the area of relationships: his Asperger’s Syndrome has made them difficult enough already, such that Hesketh has had to leave his partner Kaitlin. But at least he’s always felt that he knows how to communicate with his stepson Freddy – and this area of stability is now also being challenged.

Jensen handles the characterisation of Hesketh well. His personal quirks (such as a fascination with origami, and an instinctive knowledge of the Dulux colour chart) come across not as gimmicks but as anchor-points in his life (symbolically so when he folds origami models from the pages of a medical report that he’d rather not face). Hesketh is not characterised simply as someone who is great with data but inept with people – Jensen is subtler than that. The protagonist does have his difficulties with relating with people, but for the most part, he gets by. There are a couple of conversations where we realise (and Hesketh doesn’t) that he’s saying the wrong thing; but the effect is jarring – they stand out because they’re so infrequent.

The character who, for me, most brings home the emotional impact of The Uninvited’s catastrophe is not Hesketh, but his boss, Ashok Sharma. In some ways, Sharma is the opposite of Hesketh: he comes across as a smooth operator who knows what to say to everyone. But, when the plight affecting the world’s children knocks on Sharma’s door, he can’t stay that way, and becomes a deeper character. That two such different individuals as Hesketh and Sharma are so strongly affected is a way of showing just how far-reaching The Univited’s crisis is.

In its later sections, The Uninvited focuses more strongly on its disaster-novel aspect, and I don’t think it works quite so well – but I must acknowledge that this could just be because find the actual nature of what’s happening in Jensen’s novel is less interesting to me than exploring the characters’ reactions to it. The Uninvited seems to me to be less about human response to catastrophe than response to the threat of catastrophe, and the great emotional challenge that entails. The challenge for Hesketh Lock is to see how – or even if – he can deal with extreme emotional situations. What Jensen does so well in The Uninvited is to explore a global problem through the microcosm of one person’s life.

Elsewhere
Liz Jensen’s website
Arc Quarterly video interview with Jensen
Some other reviews of The Uninvited: Thirteen O’Clock; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm; Pamreader; Justine Jordan for The Guardian.

The month in reading: February 2010

I didn’t read quite as much in February as I did in January — but I did read a couple of books that I’m pretty sure will end up on my list of favourite reads of the year. So, my pick for ‘book of February’ is a dead heat between Liz Jensen‘s masterly character study/climate-change thriller The Rapture, and Skippy Dies, Paul Murray‘s sprawling tale of growing up (with added touches of comedy and theoretical physics).

Also on my recommended list from last month are Dan Rhodes‘ macabre Little Hands Clapping, and Amy Sackville‘s otherworldly The Still Point. And I should mention ‘Again and Again and Again’, Rachel Swirsky‘s highly enjoyable story from the most recent issue of Interzone.

All good reads, there. Check them out.

TV Book Club: The Rapture

This week’s TV Book Club was about The Rapture by Liz Jensen, which I reviewed last week (click here to see what I thought). The series got off to a shaky start, but has been improving week on week; so I was keen to see how it would go this time. In the end, it was better than some weeks, but not great.

One again, the panel was a member down, with Gok Wan away; once again, the format worked better with fewer people. This week’s guest celebrity was Martine McCutcheon; the interview with her contained the show’s first misstep. In previous weeks, this segment has been much better when the guest was interviewed about the books they like to read, rather than about their own book. The first question was about the former subject, but the conversation soon turned to the writing of McCutcheon’s novel — and the end result was indeed poorer than the interviews in the last few episodes.

I’ve always found the vox-pop non-fiction items unsatisfactory, but I think this week’s was the worst so far. It was about a book on regional dialects, called How to Talk Like a Local, by the Countdown lexicographer Susie Dent. This could have been such ain interesting item, particularly if the author had contributed — but, no. What we got instead was a comedian named Alun Cochrane travelling back and forth between the West and East Midlands, trying to find the point at which the local word for a bread roll changes from ‘batch’ to ‘cob’. That was it: no exploration of where those words come from, or how such differences arise — nothing. One could be forgiven for watching that item and not being able to name the book connected to it. Very disappointing.

After a weak first half, then, we headed out of the commercial break, and into the usual short filmed interview with an author who’d been chosen for the Book Club in previous years (this week it was David Mitchell, of Cloud Atlas fame — another book I should probably read, but haven’t). Then it was time to turn to The Rapture — and it wasn’t a bad discussion, actually. The panel had a lot to say about the novel (which they all liked); it was perhaps always going to be an impossible task to really get under the skin of the book in the time available, when it can be approached from so many angles — but the conversation brought across just how much there is in The Rapture. And McCutcheon, while not as insightful as some of the previous guests in the series, made a worthwhile contribution nevertheless.

Not one of the better TV Book Club episodes, I’d say, let down in particular by a poor first half — but quite a good discussion of the featured title, which is of course where it counts the most.

Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)

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.

Further links
Liz Jensen’s website

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