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The Rapture: A cult story with overtones of The Handmaid’s Tale

Book review: Claire McGlasson’s debut novel maps out the intriguing world of the Panacea Society

The Rapture
The Rapture
Author: Claire McGalsson
ISBN-13: 978-0571345182
Publisher: Faber
Guideline Price: £12.99

“‘We have some wealthy members.’ The war stole their brothers and husbands and they were left with great piles of money in their place. They inherited freedom.” The strange things people choose to do with their freedom is one of the reasons we read novels, particularly novels set in communities outside the bounds of society. Cults, as proven by Emma Cline’s bestselling debut The Girls, make for interesting reading – the mechanics of recruitment, the rules or lack thereof, the money, the sex, the penance, and the enigmatic figure at the centre of it all.

The issue with Claire McGlasson's otherwise engaging debut lies in this last, and arguably most important part of cult life. In  The Rapture, she profiles the world of the Panacea Society, a real organisation that grew out of wartime unrest in 20th-century England. Founded by a clergyman's widow, Mabel Barltrop, in Bedford in 1919, the society followed the teachings of a Devonshire prophetess who left a sealed box of prophecies behind her when she died more than a century earlier. As head of the society, Barltrop cast herself as Octavia, the daughter of God, or as McGlasson puts it, "the eighth in a line of English prophets the Lord has sent to guide us".

The book is narrated by Dilys, a fully indoctrinated young woman who reveres and dislikes Octavia in equal measure. Dilys is an eccentric narrator, whose intriguing world captivates from the opening pages. In the houses of Albany Road, where some 60 members devote their days to the pronouncements and wishes of Octavia, Dilys lives on a knife edge, scared of stepping out of line.

McGlasson convincingly captures the puritan, airless world, with gothic elements – the malevolent bird Sir Jack, Octavia’s creepy confidant Emily – working well to blur the lines between the real and supernatural. Everything Dilys does is scrutinised: “I was eating my teacake too loudly. The scraping of the knife as I spread the butter, the crunch as I took my first bite. Perhaps it is the carnality that offends Her: the sounds of the body taking pleasure, the jaw, the teeth, the throat.”


There is more in the way of carnality to follow, with the arrival of new member Grace. As the women grow close, McGlasson skilfully depicts Dilys' awakening: "The thought of her made me thirsty. Made me ache. A heavy weight pulling down inside me, like the pain that comes with menses." In subject matter and in the well-crafted historical tone, her writing recalls the recent debut by Sara Collins, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.

Sad irony

In the mostly female society of the Panacea, there are overtones of The Handmaid’s Tale, with a nice twist that the women are in charge for once. The sad irony, however, is that they are equally willing to confine and oppress in the name of a supposed higher power. Like Atwood’s novel, certain aspects of The Rapture are very televisual, and the book has already been optioned for TV. McGlasson is a journalist for ITV News Anglia and her experience with a camera comes through in her writing. The book is told in short, titled sections – occasionally layered with meaning (The Yellow Wallpaper) though mostly mundane and leading (Webs of Destruction) – that have a snapshot effect. Certain subplots lack depth, particularly the development of the male characters, Edgar and Peter. The backstory of Dilys and her brother Adrian is also underwritten, which lessens the catharsis of an otherwise nuanced and clever ending.

In real life, the society’s reach makes for incredible reading. An author’s note at the end of the book says that conservative estimates suggest 130,000 applications were received for healing water, and the society’s linen squares are still being posted to believers around the world today. Fictionalised, the story seems farfetched at times. The problem is with the character of Octavia who is hard to believe in, not because of her outlandish beliefs, but because of too short scenes that show her at best as mean-spirited and petulant, and at worst, as a depressed, neurotic narcissist. That so many would give up their money, freedom and lives to be with such a woman seems unlikely.

The book's success is in its subject choice – a hugely interesting world – and in the creation of characters such as Dilys and Grace, whose relationship is moving and sympathetic. McGlasson puts in a few twists along the way to keep us interested, though the greatest mystery of all is the cult itself and the willingness of its members to believe in something so intangible in the hope, perhaps, of escaping pain: "All we know is that Joanna Southcott wrote instructions and sealed them in a chest. I don't know. It is not our place to know, or to imagine. Only to trust. The box holds the answer that will free us from all this mess. No more pain, no more suffering."

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts