Sometimes, as writers like Colm Toibin have grasped, seemingly small and simple themes work very well. But tackling climate change, big business, evangelical religion, mental health and physical disability all in under 350 pages is something any writer would struggle to pass off. So perhaps one of the main flaws in Liz Jensen’s The Rapture was that there are rather too many themes going on at once.
There were as many different opinions about the novel as there were themes, so it certainly made for a fascinating discussion. There was (almost) unanimous acclaim for Jensen’s characterisation of Gabrielle and Bethany and for her undoubted ability to make the reader keep turning the pages. Here’s Janet’s comments (sent by e-mail):
• ‘Gabrielle makes an excellent main character, not perfect by any means (e.g. instantly assuming that Frazer is having an affair with Kristin and not giving him a chance to explain) which renders her more endearing rather than less. It would have been easy for Jensen not to have her in a wheelchair (and wouldn’t have affected the bigger story) but this adds a huge extra dimension to the character and the book. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be paralysed from the waist down and Jensen doesn’t shirk from conveying the awfulness of it (dog shit on your wheelchair wheels, the vulnerability of being lower down and easily tipped out and left helpless) as well as shouting the message that a women doesn’t stop being womanly because of it. I particularly liked how angry Gabrielle is at times, e.g. p201 she describes herself as living ‘a life chopped down’.
• The characterisation of the other players is rather over-shadowed by G, but worked for me. Bethany managed to be both horrific and pitiful, and I loved the depiction of G’s boss as a man so vain and uncaring he doesn’t even get off his exercise machine to talk to her (insensitive on so many levels). Frazer is convincing during his wooing of G but then I felt he got a bit lost.’
Some people loved the quality of Jensen’s writing while others found some of the images and metaphors rather laboured. For example, Janet loved the line about Bethany’s eyes closing like a doll’s eyes as she lay down to receive her ECT. I loved the image but found the language (“..comatose the moment they horizontalise”) too clumsy.
Welcome to new member Karen, who liked the way the plot gripped from the beginning and as a scientist enjoyed that aspect of the novel. Paula, on the other hand, found the unprofessional behaviour of Frazer and the other scientists an irritation. Ann was particularly annoyed with the novel because of its trivialisation of the serious issue of climate change, describing it as “one of the most ludicrous things I’ve read in a long time.”
Hannah went to hear Liz Jensen at the Durham Book Festival and her comments were fascinating, as she explained how the author carried out her research and also how Jensen never originally planned to have Gabrielle in a wheelchair but that the character seemed to insist on it. One of those weird things that happens in writing!
We almost all agreed the novel started off better than it eventually ended up – rather like, as a review in one newspaper said, one of those films that was good up until the last half-hour. Indeed, many of us felt the author seemed to have written it with at least half a mind on the film rights and that apocalyptic ending was rather too hard to swallow.
Finally, an eclectic selection of ‘further reading’ recommendations: Hannah read and enjoyed Audrey Niffeneger’s Her Fearful Symmetry; Margaret suggests another Colm Toibin, The Blackwater Lightship; Ann suggests the young adult fiction Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan and (forgive me for not noting whose suggestion this was!) we were also steered towards The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, which sounds fascinating.
Next month, from blockbuster to brainbuster as we tackle A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. All welcome for some pre-Christmas culture!
Next meeting: Tuesday December 7th at Doolally’s in Marygate, Berwick upon Tweed. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.