Author: Liz Jensen, 2009.
Genre: Eco-Thriller. Psychology. Religion.
Other Details: Paperback. 341 pages.
"The trouble is, when you deal on a daily basis with people's fantasies not coming true, there's no handbook on how to behave when they actually do. I'll have to run on whatever instincts I have left." - Gabrielle Fox, The Rapture.
This recent selection for the UK's TV Book Club, which has replaced the Richard and Judy Book Club, is set in England in the near future. This story is told from the viewpoint of Gabrielle Fox, a psychologist determined to rebuild her career as an art therapist after a devastating car accident has left her paralysed. Her chosen field is a challenging one; working with severely troubled teens. She takes a temporary assignment at the Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital on the Kentish coast, filling in for a staff member who has taken leave for an unspecified reason. One of the cases she inherits is that of16-year old Bethany Krall, who two years previously had savagely murdered her mother. Bethany claimed to have no memory of the event and had been placed in the psychiatric unit where she had proved a difficult patient, making multiple attempts to take her own life and seriously attacking another patent.
Bethany initially is very hostile towards Gabrielle, though over time Gabrielle begins to build a tenuous relationship with the troubled girl. Bethany tells Gabrielle that following her regular ECT sessions, she has been receiving visions of natural disasters, offering not only details but actual dates. When major catastrophes occur on these very dates, Gabrielle is deeply shaken. Can it be coincidence? Is Bethany a genuine visionary or is she a cunning manipulator seeking to draw Gabrielle into her delusions? Bethany's father is an evangelical minister, who preaches that the end-times are imminent, so she grew up in an environment conducive to such beliefs even if she violently rejected her parents' religion. Bethany's prediction of an approaching global cataclysm raises the stakes and impels Gabrielle into taking action.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up this book given its blend of science, psychiatry, and end-of-times religion though it sounded an intriguing mix. Although the novel begins fairly quietly, establishing its characters and setting, the pace soon builds in the second part to a shattering climax. Jensen writes very sensitively in terms of her central character, who is struggling to come to terms with being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, as well as about the inmates and staff of the psychiatric hospital, all who come across as believable characters. She also avoids making those caught up in the 'Faith Wave' into caricatures, having Gabrielle remain ever respectful of others' beliefs.
I found it quite a literary novel, full of ideas and well written with a firm scientific basis in terms of sudden climate change. I was familiar with some of the central ecological issues that also featured in Frank Schätzing's 'The Swarm' and this made the scenario even more frightening. The author's end note gives a brief account of the people and sources that assisted her in crafting the ecological, religious and psychiatric elements.
While I found plenty to criticise in 'Life as we knew it' for its weak scientific basis that meant that I could not take its central premise seriously, here the strength of the science and the powerful writing painted a picture of the near future that was all too plausible and made it worthy of the description 'nightmarish'. I found it overall a brilliant, thought-provoking read.
Liz Jensen's Page on 'The Rapture' - includes link to extract.