Rachel Rogan, from Rogan's Books, recommends this for its local appeal: "I've gone for an entirely different historical period and one we feel quite an affinity with here in Bedford. It's quite modern... Claire wrote the book set in the Panacea society, a terribly English cult that was established in Bedford about 100 years ago. It's completely fascinating... The Rapture is just wonderful. It's got real warmth and Claire's ability to creat a senso of place and time is just amazing. An awful lot of research and an awful lot of detail and historically it's really accurate."
The Rapture is perceptive about the ways in which earthly longing can be refracted into religious excitement, as a magnifying glass focuses sunlight. The Society helps channel and tame its members’ sexual passion, their grief over husbands and brothers lost in the war, and their unarticulated political frustration (first-wave feminism has barely made a splash in their lives). McGlasson weaves these threads together skilfully, creating a wise and entertaining novel about the way we break open the boxes sealed inside ourselves.
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.”
Claire McGlasson has sympathetically brought the members of the Panacea Society to life. Believers in the teachings of the 19th-century prophetess Joanna Southcott, they awaited the Second Coming in their suburban gardens. In McGlasson’s retelling, the cult’s leader, Octavia, faces a bitter power struggle as rivals vie for her favours... Avoiding the easy mockery the subject might suggest, McGlasson has forged a poignant story of misplaced faith and unexpected love.
This book’s USP is that it is based on fact. Yes, some of the characters have been concocted and it is a novel not a documentary, but the bones of the story are true. Throughout, there are passages in bold that are taken from actual Panacea Society documents and letters. (There is a Panacea Museum in Bedford.)
However, I suspect that the Devil is also in the detail and that the factual bedrock also inhibited McGlasson when it came to the plot and composition. The writing can be overly formal and, at times, downright opaque. Characters disappear abruptly, others are far too sketchy. The ending feels particularly patchy and unsatisfying.
I wanted to know more, but that in itself is a sign of how fascinating this book is — and, as a debut, it is impressive.