I think it’s safe to say that Jan Carson is now one of my go-to authors from this island; I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by her so far, The Fire Starters in particular, and with The Raptures she’s done it again with a story that is gripping, thought-provoking and downright enjoyable to read, despite the darker elements within it. When a mysterious illness befalls Ballylack, a rural village in Northern Ireland, 11-year-old Hannah Adger’s classmates start to die, one by one. While the local villagers, with some external help, are on an urgent quest to uncover the cause of this epidemic, Hannah’s classmates are appearing to Hannah, keeping her updated on their new lives on the other side.
Hannah, our protagonist, and narrator for two chapters, is a highly compelling character. A smart but quiet and introverted child, awkward, self-conscious and displaying a childish innocence at times, she also shows a certain maturity and depth of introspection in her struggle with the faith that she has been born into. Hannah’s parents, strict born-again Christians, veto everything, from the cinema and school discos to a school trip to the local Raggedy Tree where the fairies live, rendering Hannah somewhat of a social outcast amongst her peers. As anxiety mounts, her parents also find their faith and family dynamics tested; Hannah’s mother delights us with simple acts of rebellion as she begins to place her child before her faith, while even Hannah’s highly orthodox father finds himself momentarily imagining some amusing out-of-character actions. Granda Pete is a delightfully mischievous and comforting figure in Hannah’s life, a man with his own history pertaining to local politics and religious austerity. As the story unfolds, Carson beautifully explores the evolving dynamics between this family; the tender moments, the clashes, the individual moments of realisation they experience, and the responses elicited by the tragedy befalling their community.
The serious themes explored in this story – the effects of conservative religion, patriarchal indoctrination, sectarianism, community panic and mistrust during an epidemic, grief, guilt, loneliness, how it is to be an outsider in a close-knit community, and how people are tested when they come under pressure – are balanced with a certain lightness through Carson’s trademark venture into the otherworldly and the energy infused by the great local vernacular.
Carson conjures a great, gently satirical sense of village life; the close-knit element and outward shows of support juxtaposed with the murmured judgements and spreading of news led by village gossip Mrs. Nugent. The colloquial banter and expressions, along with the references to the Troubles and the build up to the Twelfth parade, anchor the story firmly in Northern Ireland, while some delightful and familiar pop-culture references (yes, I did go back and google the video to No Limit, did you?) place our story in the early 1990s – 1993 to be exact. This tiny microcosm of Northern Ireland, vividly depicted, is a place where opposites coexist, if not always easily: staunch faith and superstition, those whose families have lived there for generations and the newcomers bringing other cultures to the village. The book explores in particular the different ways in which people can be living on the fringes and somehow shunned, judged or talked about – be it the overly-religious Adgers, the ‘hippy’ Anderson family or Alan Gardiner’s mixed-race family.
The space the dead children now inhabit becomes an interesting reflection on the nature of division and conflict. Freed from the shackles of things that bound or differentiated them in life, united by their new existence, the dead children initially seem to have gained a new lease of life, gaining in independence, confidence and showing the sides of themselves they feel people would have seen if they had bothered to look while they were alive. Yet, before long, divisions arise and violence erupts, reflecting the unrest in the place they came from, and the troubles prevalent in communities around the wider country. While given a light-hearted slant due to the childish nature of the arguing, the situation invites more sombre reflection on the cyclical nature of community strife and division.
Carson has a dynamic and fluid way of writing that makes her books so swiftly readable, and a way of combining the humorous with the more serious that makes her stories both entertaining and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to continuing on my journey working my way through Carson’s full collection of works.
Book 4 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com
Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, was published in 2014 to critical acclaim, followed by a short-story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and two flash fiction anthologies, Postcard Stories (2017) and Postcard Stories 2 (2020). Her second novel, The Fire Starters (2019), won the EU Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Dalkey Novel of the Year Award. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and on BBC Radio 3 and 4. She has won the Harper’s Bazaar short-story competition and has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize. She specializes in running arts projects and events with older people, especially those living with dementia.