Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 25, 2022

The Raptures, by Jan Carson

I’d just borrowed Jan Carson’s The Raptures from the library when Cathy at 746 Books broke the news that it had been shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year (along with another splendid novel that I’ve read, The Colony by Audrey Magee, see my review). The Raptures was on my radar because I’d read the review by Kim at Reading Matters but now that I’ve read the book, I know why it was shortlisted…

Human beings are spectacularly good at brutal conflicts which go on for years and hate-filled years, and The Raptures shows the reader what it is like to be a child growing up in a climate where death seems random and inevitable.  The novel traces three months in the life of Hannah, a child growing up in a Northern Ireland village in 1993 during the Troubles, when — inexplicably at first — the children in her class start to die. As the villagers grapple with the existential question Where will it end? How can they make it stop? they are confronting the normalisation of the Troubles with its reality.

Carson depicts the Othering that perpetuates the bigotry with black humour and biting satire.  Ten-year-old Hannah is isolated from the other children in her class because of her evangelical faith. Her parents impose numerous strictures to prevent her being ‘contaminated’ by the values of the other people in the village.  No dancing, no cinema, no magic or fairy tales and so on.  Her exclusion, imposed partly by her parents and partly by the children who reject her oddness, has the effect of making her both naïve and perceptive. She is startled when her mother suggests meditating on the scriptures to ward off the illness, because she thinks that meditation is something that Muslims do.

They’ve done Muslims in RE class.  It’s all right to learn about wars and other bad things that happened in history.  Forewarned is forearmed, Pastor Bill says.  Hannah has no notion of what this means. It is not OK to dabble in other people’s religions.  Most Protestants would agree on this.  It’s why Lief’s mum wasn’t allowed to do her yoga demonstration at the last school fair.  It’s why Granny stopped watching Songs of Praise* after they had an ecumenical carol service, broadcast from a Roman Catholic chapel with a priest saying the prayers. (p.218)

When asked, Mum tells Hannah that she thinks it’s Buddhists who meditate, but meditating on the scriptures is of God, not the Devil. Carson is economical, and not didactic, but she makes the point that this kind of bigotry, ingrained over generations, won’t be shifted by some lessons in comparative religion.

Despite the children’s deaths, the loyalists hold their annual march commemorating the Battle of the Boyne and the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.

The loyal contingent is making an attempt to be respectful.  Of course they’ll shift their bonfire out of the village. They don’t mind gathering somewhere a bit more discreet. They don’t, for a second, consider cancelling.  It’s the eleventh of July and burning Sinn Féin posters is their God-ordained right.  (p.150)

The mysterious illness, which has a cause eventually revealed, is a metaphor for the intractable conflict that ruins lives.  As in The Fire Starters, (see my review) there are fantastic elements, used judiciously to illustrate the impact of the decades of conflict on the children.  Hannah is visited by each child who dies, all of them slightly older versions of themselves. The sole survivor is haunted by adolescent versions of those who did not survive, who never grew up to be older, wiser or more foolish, better- or worse-looking, more popular or more irritating than they were as children. Some of them are droll, some of them are annoying, but all of them are a poignant presence for a girl who is so vividly lonely and who feels guilty for being alive.

This is what it is like for child survivors in Iraq, and the Horn of Africa, and other places closer to home.

I had never thought about the pressure on the health system during the Troubles.  About there not being enough beds for people with ordinary illnesses at a time when random acts of violence could overwhelm emergency services at hospitals and displace other patients.  Covid has made us all more aware of our health services as part of a system with limits, and the novel shows us the harried staff who hustle Hannah out of the hospital because the place is absolutely chockers today: there’s been a bus crash out at Sandy Knowles and a bomb underneath a prison officer’s car.

The Raptures reminds us that the Good Friday Agreement hasn’t healed all wounds. The #NoSpoilers perpetrator is not a bad man. 

Still, children are dead, and they keep on dying.  Ballylack’s ruined, and he’s to blame.  For years to come, grief will catch like a rag nail on everything the villagers touch.  Every baby born will be more precious in light of their loss. Every small occasion rendered significant simply because they are not present.  Time will stick and take on a new beat.  It will be slower and stiffer from now on.  People will refer to the following years as After. While everything preceding will be known as Before. There’ll be no need to clarify these terms. No need to mark or date them.  Something seismic has taken place this summer.  Nothing in Ballylack will ever be the same.  (p.215-6)

This man’s stupidity and greed is emblematic of people who unwittingly are complicit in facilitating acts of violence with dreadful consequences.  Flouting rules and conventions for personal gain, not considering the possibility that they are part of the malice.  He will carry the burden of guilt and shame for his entire life.

Despite its serious undertone, The Raptures is often laugh-out-loud funny.  The omniscient narrator uses a chatty conversational tone to poke fun at everyone, from the villagers to the journalists and the out-of-town crisis-management officer and the evangelists.

The resolution of the crisis is nicely ambiguous.  The media, the rumourmongers, the blamers and the believers all have a different take on the power of prayer.  Whatever about that, from here in faraway Australia, peace — when it was finally brokered — seemed like a miracle.

*Unbelievers though we be, we watch the ABC’s Songs of Praise on Sundays when we’re having breakfast.  We like the old churches in rural England, and we like the hymns, the old-fashioned ones where we (sort-of) know the words, or the first lines at least, and we critique the modern ones that are badly sung because they’re not written with the vocal range of ordinary folks in mind.

Author: Jan Carson
Title: The Raptures
Publisher: Doubleday, (an imprint of Transworld, an imprint of Penguin Random House), 2022
Jacket design by Irene Martinez Costa
ISBN: 9780857525758, hbk., 323 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. This sounds so good.
    NB – I totally agree about Songs of Praise. Oh, those modern ‘hymns’!

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    • Vocal ranges are on our radar at the moment because The Spouse has joined a choir and the songs they were asked to sing at the first rehearsal were all far too difficult for them to sing. It will be ‘interesting’ to hear what transpires next.
      At Teachers College when we did music in second year, (that is, how to teach it), we were told that most pop songs have ranges and intervals that are too hard for children to sing and that if you actually want to teach children to sing in tune, then the old folk songs (like Greensleeves) were the best to choose.
      I used to think of this often when our Year Sixes would sing an excruciating farewell song from the charts. The school concert was not so bad because they’d be accompanied by the actual recording which drowned them out. (The perpetrator was in a relationship with a ‘song-writer’ and had no idea what singing in tune meant.)

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      • I hope the choir turns out well. Such a great thing to do.

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        • *Chuckle* It’s an all-male Probus club. They’re having trouble finding sopranos…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the link, Lisa. I think you liked this book more than me. I found it too repetitive (though I guess that’s part of the point) and didn’t hold my attention as much as I would have liked and hence I only wrote about 200 words on it.

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    • LOL Good guess, Kim, I did like it a lot. But your review was enough to pique my interest, which just shows what you can do with 200 words!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a book I should read! Thanks.

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    • I think you’d find it interesting, Becky:)

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  4. I’m just back from a few days visiting family in Ireland (my wife’s that is); my own come from N Ireland, so both these Carson novels sound interesting to me as I trace my ancestry.

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    • I think they would give you a good sense of the kind of attitudes that some people in NI might have.

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  5. Great review Lisa, you captured the book to a tee. Really glad you enjoyed it.

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    • Thanks, Cathy, next to read is the O’Farrell…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve just finished it. Would be keen to hear what you think.

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        • *chuckle*
          Somehow, I have found myself reading seven books at the moment, and I think I’d better finish one or two of them before I start another…

          Liked by 1 person


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