The Dark Light by Julia Bell - book review: Teenage horror as savage as it is suspenseful

In 245 tightly-written pages, Bell satirises evangelical religion at its most sinister while bouncing her story between two narrators

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The Independent Culture

Religious fanaticism and Gothic horror go together like a horse and carriage, and when you throw an island into the equation things can only get better. Julia Bell's third novel follows Massive and Dirty Work in being concerned with what adolescents see and adults don't.

Alex is a teenage girl with a penchant for arson. Orphaned, bullied at school as a suspected lesbian, and in constant trouble, she is sent by her aunt and uncle to live in a community on an island so remote that there is only one annual boat, and no supervision. Lippy, defiant, and angry, Alex is armed with rather more education than she lets on, but when she is confronted by a group calling itself The Chosen, whose members are awaiting the End of Times in which they alone will be Raptured up to heaven by Jesus, she knows it could be the death of her.

Not so our other narrator, Rebekah. Born into the community, her mind is almost as starved as her heart, but she loves the beauty of the island and, as we quickly realise, experiences a coup de foudre when she sees Alex. Gradually, the two girls are drawn together, and as the magnificent Alex challenges and derides every half-baked opinion that her friend has accepted without question, Rebekah's fog of ignorance lifts. "Thinking is sinking" is the mantra they keep repeating; however, the "unnatural" Alex, greeted as a prophetic sign, initially seems to be a match even for the creepily charismatic Pastor. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, except that the Chosen are kept biddable not just by guns (only possessed by men) but by bullying, coercion and worse.

The humour is as black as the lightless nights, and the horror mounts the more we get to grasp the girls' predicament. How can Alex raise the alarm? How can the few sane people left survive the Pastor's bloody preparations for impending Rapture? In 245 tightly-written pages, Bell satirises evangelical religion at its most sinister while bouncing her story between two narrators who change their perspective, but who never lose sight of the practical detail of a life described in its discomfort, privation, delusion and psychological cruelty.

Island, Aldous Huxley's sequel to Brave New World, depicted a joyous Utopia. This is its antithesis: a blend of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Wicker Man that is as savage as it is suspenseful. It will entertain resentful teenagers holidaying with their families and their exhausted parents in equally mordant measure.

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