- 22 Mar 22
It's The Way She Tells 'Em
This third novel from Belfast-based Eu Prize For Literature winner Carson concerns an epidemic outbreak in the small Norn Iron town of Ballylack that starts picking off a school class of children one by one. Our main protagonist is eleven-year old Hannah Adger, a Christian of the born-again stripe who is not even allowed to go to the cinema, because it starts with sin, and there’s no room for singing The Beatles or the study of dinosaurs either. It's an upbringing that reflects that author’s own in Ballymena, one she had to break from to have her voice heard.
Unlike the siren who may or may not turn up in Carson’s The Fire Starters, the dead children do appear – albeit in more grown-up form - to visit Hannah, and tell her of the village beyond that they now inhabit. They split into factions, adopting 2 Unlimited’s immortal ‘No Limits’ as their theme tune, which places the novel a few years before the Good Friday agreement. Hannah takes this in her stride, more or less, and wonders if she may be “getting a special message from God”. Understandable really, when the old testament and the Book Of Revelations are as ubiquitous in her life as popular culture is in the lives of others.
As the body count grows, Carson paints a remarkable picture of both grief – the Chinese family, the Leungs, hold a wake with the requisite tea and sandwiches, trying to fit in, even in the face of their unimaginable loss - and relief, for what could be more natural than giving thanks that it’s them and not you when tragedy is visited on someone else? The question remains as to why Hannah is immune to what’s going around.
Shots are taken at both the marching season – Hannah’s Granda Pete, a decent chap who prays in his own way, berates those who don’t know why they do what they do – and religious extremism – the laying on of the hands late in the novel is some seriously dodgy business and Carson skilfully delivers a genuinely unnerving scene. Carson also manages to illicit sympathy for characters when you least expect it, like Hannah’s father, despite his insistence that a school nature walk to the raggedy tree would be akin to opening the front door to Lucifer, and the naïve Alan Gardiner. Alan is a bigot and a fool but that’s the atmosphere he was raised in. He makes mistakes but you feel pity rather than anger, and his interactions with his son are both believable and, eventually, heart-breaking.
Aside from Pete, the strongest characters are female, such as Hannah’s mother, who, in an act of genuine rebellion, hangs up the phone on her husband when she’s had enough, and Maganda, Alan’s Filipino wife, who emerges as fierce in her own way despite a courtship that hardly boded well. All of that is well and good but what’s really important to state is that The Raptures is a gripping, funny, sad, scary and original piece of work which marks Carson out, again, as one of the finest fiction writers on this – or any other – island.