Book Review: The Raptures

the raptures

“The shame of it. She’s hot with shame. Hannah has been brought up to believe the fault is always with her.”

The Raptures, by Jan Carson, is set in the summer of 1993, in the fictional one street village of Ballylack, County Antrim. It focuses on Hannah Adger, an eleven year old girl whose parents are strict, evangelical Christians. Hannah knows she doesn’t fit in with her peers. She’s not permitted to watch the television shows they enjoy or listen to the popular music they dance and sing along to. When Hannah is not at school, her life revolves around the church where they: speak in tongues, preach on the saving of souls, and pray long and earnestly. She remains stoic about the limitations imposed by her parents. She believes in their God, but would also be happier if she had friends.

As the final school term of her primary education ends, Hannah is anticipating the long summer holiday, much as in previous years, although at its end she will start at the big school in the nearby market town. Expectations change when she is visited by one of her classmates who has died unexpectedly of a mysterious illness. The village mourns the young lad’s passing. Sadness turns to fear when other children start to suffer the same symptoms.

The story takes the reader inside the homes of the eleven children who made up the village school’s outgoing P7 class. When the layers of conformity are peeled back they are a disparate group. One lass is being raised by her grandparents after her mother was caught in one of the bombings common during The Troubles and blown to pieces. Another girl is the daughter of the local Chinese restaurant proprietors so is marked by her facial features as different. Although a deeply traditional, generational farming community, one of the fathers took a foreign wife and now struggles to love his son, exacerbated by how different the boy looks to him. The author presents these prejudices with her trademark wit but this never detracts from the depth of long term damage such views cause.

Carson has a knack for quietly articulating the essence of an upbringing in which little of note is ever discussed yet everyone knows what is expected of them and only a rare few will dare to stray – beyond a touch of minor rebellion. There is ingrained fear of opprobrium from the community that would bring shame on one’s family, to dare to have notions they have no right to in other’s view.

“He fears God, though he’s not sure he believes in him. Oh, but the fear’s real enough, and the shame and the guilt.”

As more children succumb to the illness, the authorities and media take an interest. This adds to the tension in the village. Meanwhile, Hannah is struggling with the knowledge that she is likely to die, quite a burden for an eleven year old, especially when the adults around her are avoiding such talk in an attempt to protect her. Only she is aware that the dead kids now exist in an alternative place where they may do as they wish.

Although a tale of young children dying, there is much humour within these pages. The author adds asides that sympathetically poke fun at the quirks of the Northern Irish. In doing so through the eyes of a child there is an honest naivety that is easy to enjoy.

“I’m pretty clever for a girl. Obviously I’d never say this out loud. It’d sound like I was being prideful. Pride’s one of the worst sins you can do. Only murder and adultery are worse. I’m not exactly sure what adultery is. I think it’s when you act more grown up than you actually are: drinking wine and playing cards or maybe giving your parents lip.”

In an attempt to control the developing situation, a crisis-management officer is drafted in. Seán Donnelly may be an expert but he is from the South and a Catholic. Nevertheless, as the death toll climbs, the locals are growing desperate and are willing to have someone who sounds as if they know what they are doing take charge. When he arrives to deal with a potentially confrontational situation at the Adgers – the tension cut through with silent rage born of barely held together stress – Donnelly’s skills come to the fore.

“Seán’s eye lands on granny. She’s his in. He can tell just from looking that she’s a talker … He addresses his question directly to her. ‘Fill me in, Mrs Adger. What exactly’s happened here?’
It’s as if he’s flicked the detonator. Granny draws breath and out it all comes in one incessant, angry blast.”

The story offers a fascinating snapshot of a rural community in which the religious divides and judgements of Ulster Protestantism place barriers within and without families. Stews and tray bakes are offered alongside prayers that focus on blame. If the wages of sin are death then the parents of these children will look to their past behaviour. Hannah may believe that she has a friend in Jesus but he is being awfully quiet now she really needs him.

The writing flows beautifully with carefully structured changes in focus maintaining engagement. A deep seam of issues is mined with the lightest of touches – any who have lived in the province will recognise the complex and stunted beliefs portrayed.

This is somehow a gloriously affirmative tale despite the grief riddled subject matter. An entirely satisfying and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.