Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Science and religion clash in a thought-provoking thriller

The Rapture
by Liz Jenkins

Apocalypse and dystopia. Everywhere I look apocalypse--at least on my bookshelf, that is. Everyone seems to be writing about the end of the world, and the scariest part is that none of it seems to be the least bit implausible.

The latest addition to my apocalyptic reading is Liz Jensen's The Rapture. Once you get past the notably unattractive cover, the first thing you'll notice about this novel is the superiority of Jensen's prose. Right from the first paragraph, it is abundantly clear that you're not reading the average thriller with serviceable language. What's even more extraordinary is that the beauty of Jensen's prose doesn't slow down this thriller one bit.

At its heart, this is the story of three very damaged people and one very damaged planet. The first-person narrator is Gabrielle Fox. She's the new art therapist at Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital. Gabrielle left the bustle of London for this facility in remote Hadport in the wake of her own personal tragedy. It takes some time for all the details to be teased out, but the result, two years on, is that she will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Doctor, heal thyself. Gabrielle is well aware that she has a lot of issues of her own to work through before she's fully prepared to help others.

Nonetheless, she is charged with helping some severely disturbed young people. Perhaps the most disquieting of them all is Bethany Krall. Now 16, Bethany has been locked up for two years since she killed her mother with a screwdriver. She is not cute, and she is not misunderstood. She is a tough, tough character to empathize with, but you just can't turn away from her.

Bethany has been having visions in the wake of her electro-convulsive therapy treatments. She sees cyclones, earthquakes, and other things she can't possibly know, with very specific details. While at first Gabrielle ignores Bethany's insane babbling, when enough predictions prove correct, she seeks outside opinion. Here enters physicist and expert on natural phenomenon, Frazer Melville (inexplicably referred to by his full name or the appellation "the physicist" at all times). He brings the science--and the romance.

It is fairly formulaic for a thriller to have a romantic sub-plot, but this is a rare example of the romance feeling truly integral to the story being told. The relationship felt organic, and I felt emotionally invested in the characters. Yes, there were times I wanted to slap Gabrielle and yell, "Get over it!" But she behaved consistently as the damaged individual she was.

There's no need to discuss the details of the plot further, but I was pleased by the insertion of some science into the religious "end times" story. This isn't a Michael Crichton-style hard science thriller, but it should definitely leave you with some food for thought.

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