It’s been a cracking reading week so far this week. And it’s only Wednesday!
First the excellent The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal,and now The Rapture by Claire McGlasson.I was lucky enough to have received a copy of this book from Faber and Faber in exchange for an honest review. And it has been my absolute pleasure to read and review.
It is a well documented fact that truth is often stranger than fiction and the tale told in The Raptureis the very embodiment of this. Open the pages and you are taken back to 1920’s Bedford, England. In the years following the Great War a women, Mabel Barltrop, Vicars wife and mother of four, believed herself to be the daughter of God. Styling herself as Octavia, she drew a following of women who set up their own religious community; The Panacea Society. The women believed they were working towards the end of days and the opening of a box sealed years before by the prophetess Joanna Southcott. They believed that by persuading all 24 Bishops to accept the supreme rule of women than the answer to all despair would be revealed upon the opening of the box.
Are you gripped yet???
And so begins McGlasson’s skilful imaging of this intriguing story. Told from the perspective of Dilys, the youngest member of the society, events slowly unfold. At first this seems a very domestic and civilised cult. A wry, humorous tone pervades the narrative. Will the Lord really care about the cushion covers? And if Jesus returns and finds you looking tired and drawn, will he cancel the second coming? It is a gentle introduction to the society, building a picture of a group that is slightly eccentric, definitely misguided but ultimately doing no harm.
They are after all the Pancea Society. By their very definition they do no harm.
The arrival of fresh blood in the form of the lively and beguiling Grace throws the women into stark relief. Dilys is the one to find Grace. Almost unwittingly she brings her into the fold and quickly comes to rely on her. At the start of the novel Dilys is fumbling, misguided and clearly unhappy. Her life is ruled by signs and messages, interpreted and imposed on her by others. She is fighting with suppressed doubt when suddenly new and powerful emotions are awoken by Grace’s presence. Dilys’ reaction rings with imagery of religious conversion; in Grace she finds what the cult denies her, but is she strong enough, brave enough to take what is offered?
If the novel starts with benign domesticity McGlasson slow, menacingly slides this air of comfort away. Tensions build as darker motivations and actions come into play. A series of shocking revelations and discoveries come together to reveal a group not in harmony. An increasing air of suspicion and accusations surround the characters and we begin to see what happens as core values are threaten and life long beliefs begin to shatter.
McGlasson has built a compelling portrait of a group of vulnerable souls, devastated by loss and war, looking for a truth that they can believe in. The novel raises key questions about the search for a wider truth, and who do we trust in our search. It pursues the blurred lines between faith, hope and the ultimate reality. How do we cope when everything we build our lives, belief systems and very being begins to tumble around us? Do we face difficult truths or do we create more falsehoods, keeping up damaging a pretence? In the words of Dilys:
“Sometimes we cling to the very thing that is pulling us under.”
Many of the characters within this novel harbour secrets, all are looking for redemption and a sense of peace. McGlasson shows us just how fine the balance between hope and despair can be. It asks big questions about the role of religion not just with the Panacea Society, but in the wider community. Is faith a welcome force, uplifting and sustaining or does it always lead to compromise and control, ultimately becoming an abuse of power?
McGlasson has created a powerful and thought provoking piece of work, one that leads the reader to an incredible, but little known event in Post war England. It’s real power lies within its ability to weave together many complex issues. McGlasson gives us no definitive answers, raises many questions; sometimes without giving answers. And yet this is a most satisfying book. It will make you think, make you talk, make you want to discuss the issues within it. It is not a book to be read and forgetton. It educates, pushes boundaries and seeps into your soul. This one is going to causes some waves!