Back in my pre-blogging days, I read and enjoyed Liz Jensen’s The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, so when I saw that her publisher was offering up review copies of her latest novel, released August 11, I was eager to get a copy.
Set in England in the near future, The Rapture is an apocalyptic eco-thriller about a psychologist, Gabrielle, who has been badly injured in an automobile accident, and her 16-year-old patient, Bethany, who has been locked up for murdering her mother. Bethany’s imagination is filled with images of natural disasters, and it doesn’t take long for Gabrielle to see uncanny parallels between Bethany’s fantasies and real-life hurricanes, volcano eruptions, and other disasters happening around the world. Bethany’s “visions,” which are fueled by electroshock treatments, soon come to take on an apocalyptic tone that draws heavily on the eschatological beliefs of Bethany’s minister father. (The title of the book refers to the belief held by many Christians that God will raise all believers into heaven shortly before the end of the world.)
Gabrielle isn’t sure what to make of any of this. Is Bethany just trying to get attention? Is the accuracy of her predictions attributable to coincidence? Does she have some special sensitivity to atmospheric changes? Is the end truly near? Why did Bethany kill her mother anyway? And who’s the red-haired woman who appears to be stalking Gabrielle? She consults with a physicist named Frazer Melville to see if there are scientific explanations for what is happening, and together they try to uncover the truth about Bethany’s visions in time to save the world from apocalypse.
Jensen sets up the problem very well. I was intrigued almost from the start. The world of the novel is just far enough in the future that society has changed a bit, but it’s not quite so far forward as to seem entirely unfamiliar. References to groups like the Planetarians and the Faith Wavers make it clear that it’s not quite our present reality, although it’s pretty darn close. Gabrielle herself caught my interest and my sympathies right away with her acerbic wit. And the whole question of Bethany’s visions took me right back to some of the best episodes of The X Files. Watching the problem unfold and seeing Gabrielle and Frazer recognize the gravity of the situation absorbed my full attention.
The main plot generally works well. I was not pleased with certain aspects of Bethany’s story, mostly because Jensen relies on some particularly ugly stereotypes about Christians. The actions of the characters involved in Bethany’s history are plausible enough, but, frankly, what Jensen has them doing is both predictable and boring. I would have preferred more nuance and maybe even a few questions left unanswered.
Other unfortunate detours included a romantic misunderstanding that should have been quickly resolved. And the time line, particularly in the last quarter of the book, probably wouldn’t stand up to careful scrutiny (unless the Faith Wavers are on constant alert, just in case they need to set up a rally in a stadium in a matter of hours).
However, as a thiller The Rapture generally succeeds. There were times when I just couldn’t put it down. The danger is just believable enough, and the stakes are high. It’s never quite clear what’s going to happen, but what happens works. The Rapture is perhaps not as profound as it makes itself out to be (there’s a note at the end about the devastating consequences of climate change), but it’s a fun read, which is good enough for me on a lazy summer weekend.