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

Claire McGlasson is a journalist for ITV News Anglia

Claire McGlasson is a journalist for ITV News Anglia

“‘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.

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