The Rapture, By Liz Jensen

Marianne Brace
Friday 12 June 2009 00:00
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Apocalyptic environmental disaster is hard to convey convincingly in fiction. The printed page can seem at odds with the sort of titanic chaos and destruction which involves submerged continents, seas on fire and mankind wiped out. But Liz Jensen's compelling eco-thriller The Rapture makes a good fist of conjuring that doomsday scenario.

Set in the near future, the novel occupies territory which Jensen has broached before – religion, science, dystopia, trauma. But whereas her blackly comic sense of humour has leavened previous work, The Rapture makes chilling reading. When the novel opens, the interesting times weathered so far have included food shortages, an "expanded Middle East war" and a mass conversion to the Faith Wave – Christian fundamentalism which embraces the idea of the Rapture (true believers beamed to heaven before seven years of tribulation and rule by the Antichrist).

Climate change is on a relentless roll. Temperatures have zoomed up, no one can remember a time when people went without sunglasses and "if you venture out early enough you can taste the sharp tang of ozone in your mouth".

Jensen hooks us with a narrative told in the present tense by Gabrielle, an art therapist given to blushing. Gabrielle has moved to the south coast and is trying to rebuild her life: 18 months ago, a car crash robbed her of her lover and her working limbs. Wheelchair-bound, she must negotiate not only the world of the disabled, but also that of the psychotically challenged.

One of Gabrielle's charges at the Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital is 16-year-old Bethany Krall. Damaged, deranged, dangerous, the teenager stabbed her bible-bashing mother to death with a screwdriver. Her father is an evangelical preacher who thinks his daughter is demonic. Following ECT, Bethany can accurately predict natural disasters: "Glaciers melting like butter in a microwave." But are her "visions" a fluke or is she somehow causing cataclysms? There's a rig off Norway's coast drilling for methane, the big daddy of greenhouse gases. And Bethany senses a final catastrophe.

Jensen writes with energy and chutzpah about the scarily possible. She deals in disturbing images – the Rio Christ tumbled during a hurricane; a post-earthquake Istanbul "desolate as a hundred thousand Ground Zeros"; dead jellyfish washed up as though "a manic giant has garlanded the coastline with bubble wrap". Against toxic snapshots of devastation is the new normal: a sky of "intense Hockney blue that seems almost to gag on its own density".

While some characters serve only to advance the action, Bethany and Gabrielle – both disturbed and vulnerable in different ways – are well drawn. The story speeds to its conclusion (in a somewhat improbable time-scale) and ends with a last scene which manages to be both electric and elegiac.

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