The Raptures by Jan Carson: ‘You people can’t see anything but yourselves’

Cover image for The Raptures by Jan CarsonMy reading year’s off to a great start with a book by an author whose name I’ve spotted frequently in my Twitter timeline but somehow never got around to reading. Given that I wasn’t entirely persuaded by its premise, it was those tweets from so many readers I trust that tipped the balance in favour of The Raptures. Set in a small Ulster village, Jan Carson’s novel is about a class of 11-year-olds struck down by a fatal illness, one of whom seems to have escaped the fate of the others.

You wouldn’t leave your farm to a woman. Women are grand for keeping house and children, occasionally ploughtering about with hens.

Hannah has always been an outsider even more so than Matty, neglected by his alcoholic mother, and mixed-race Bayani who everyone calls Ben, even his father. She has conversations in her head with Jesus, longs to watch Coronation Street, strictly forbidden by her fervently evangelical father, and loves her Granda Pete who can’t stand his son’s religiosity. As one by one her classmates begin to sicken, each of them appears to her just before they die. All of them are now well over the threshold of puberty, uncomfortable with their awkward new bodies, bringing back tales of running wild with the Dead Kids gang that one of them has set up. After each visitation, her dead classmate disappears leaving Hannah puzzled and increasingly guilty about her own survival. Meanwhile, the media stations itself in Ballylack, morbidly awaiting the next casualty.

Death suits him. He seems so much healthier than before.

Carson opens her novel with a chapter narrated in Hannah’s voice, pulling off the tough trick of child narration brilliantly before switching to the third person. Hannah is an engaging child: bright, funny only too well aware of her family’s difference. Carson weaves a multitude of themes through her story which is set in the early ‘90s against the backdrop of the Troubles: religion, politics, family childhood, racism, sexism and death are all addressed although never with a heavy hand. There’s a great deal of humour, black and otherwise, much of it provided by Hannah. The insularity of village life is particularly well done, its racism cloaked in politeness, while Granda Pete is a beacon of light shining out for Hannah. And I’m pleased to say it ends on a note of hope.

Doubleday: London ‎ 9780857525758 336 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

14 thoughts on “The Raptures by Jan Carson: ‘You people can’t see anything but yourselves’”

  1. I loved Carson’s novel (or collection of interlinked short stories?), The Last Resort, when I listened to it on Radio 4 recently. (It was in the Book at Bedtime slot late last year, I think.) This new one sounds interesting too, with a similarly strong sense of place. I’ll keep it in mind.

    1. It’s a novel firmly anchored in time and place, not least by the backdrop of The Troubles. The Last Resort sounds like it should be my next Carson, Jacqui. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Gosh, this novel sounds extraordinary, I hadn’t heard of the author or seen anything about this novel, but it’s firmly on my radar now. A mystery illness, it could almost come from the pen of Barbara Comyns.

  3. Nice review without giving too much away. I liked the vein of dark humour that runs through it and the description of the small community, it all felt very real. I’d also recommend ‘The Fire starters’, an earlier book with a bit of magic realism set around the twelfth bonfires.

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