Dilys is a devoted member of a terribly English cult: The Panacea Society, populated almost entirely by virtuous single ladies.
When she strikes up a friendship with Grace, a new recruit, God finally seems to be smiling upon her. The friends become closer as they wait for the Lord to return to their very own Garden of Eden, and Dilys feels she has found the right path at last.
But Dilys is wary of their leader’s zealotry and suspicious of those who would seem to influence her for their own ends. As her feelings for Grace bud and bloom, the Society around her begins to crumble. Faith is supplanted by doubt as both women come to question what is true and fear what is real.
Never has the saying truth is stranger than fiction been more relevant! Whilst Claire McGlasson’s debut novel The Rapture is a work of fiction, it is based on the remarkable true story of The Panacea Society, an English religious community that flourished in Bedfordshire and still exists today in the form of a The Panacea Trust, a charitable organisation and an associated Panacea Museum.
The novel is set in 1926 and follows Dilys, a devoted Panacean desperate to gain the approval of Octavia, the society’s charismatic leader and self-proclaimed ‘Daughter of God’. Living within the confines of the Panacean’s ‘Garden of Eden’; which members believe to be THE biblical Garden (complete with its own world tree, Yggdrasil), Dilys’ life is ordered and confined until the day she meets Grace, a new recruit.
Already unsettled by the changes wrought in the society since the ascension of the redoubtable Emily to the position of Octavia’s right-hand woman, Grace’s presence awakens new doubts in Dilys – and new desires. As her feelings for Grace clash with the truths she has held dear all her life, Dilys’ faith gets shaken to its core and a will to escape the confines of the Garden starts to overtake her.
The Rapture is an utterly fascinating novel that skillfully weaves together fact and fiction to create a compelling and vibrant story of, as the blurb says, a terribly English cult. I became completely wrapped up in the strange world of the Panacean’s, with their healing squares of ‘divine water’ and their enclosed ‘Garden of Eden’. At times it was hard to believe that such a society ever existed in a quiet corner of the Bedfordshire countryside – but every so often McGlasson includes text from Society scriptures and pamphlets, quotes directly from Octavia’s letters, or includes the regularly updated lists of rules for members, to remind you that the backdrop to Dilys’ tale, and many of the events contained within, were very real.
Her fictionalisation of the characters is skillfully done. Unlike some novels that deal with ‘cults’, McGlasson has provided sympathetic renditions of many of the Society members, showing them to be women with deeply held convictions and genuine beliefs. At the same time, she has also crafted a story that highlights the dangers of collective belief and groupthink – and of the personal politics and shifting interpersonal powerplays that can creep into such organisations.
Dilys is a particularly well-rounded character, coming across as a confused young woman uncertain of her place in the world and struggling to process new found knowledge and increasing self-realisation against the long-standing and deeply held beliefs that she holds dear. McGlasson’s portrayal of Dilys’ fracturing mental state is particularly well crafted, and her intense first-person narration reminded me of being inside the head of Offred in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Dilys’ relationship with Grace is also beautifully crafted, shifting between tentative and gentle scenes to those of confrontation and doubt. I don’t do spoilers in my reviews but I would be interested to hear from those who have read the book what they thought about Grace’s role. Her character remains tantalisingly obscure throughout the novel and, at times, I almost felt she was a figment of Dilys’ overactive imagination. This obscurity works in the plot’s favour, however, allowing Grace to be both the promise of Dilys’ salvation – and the potential source of her downfall.
As you can probably tell, I very much enjoyed The Rapture. McGlasson has written an accomplished and riveting historical novel that illuminates a fascinating and little-known part of English history. Having read the book, I’m desperate to visit the Panacea Museum and see Castleside and the Garden for myself!
Historical fiction fans are sure to find a great deal to enjoy here and the novel would be perfect for fans of Emma Cline’s The Girls, or Jennie Melmed’s Gather the Daughters. And, as mentioned earlier, I definitely get Handmaid’s Tale vibes from the style and the narration! Highly recommended, The Rapture is a vibrant, unsettling and moving coming-of-age tale that is sure to keep you reading late into the evening.
The Rapture by Claire McGlasson is published on 06 June 2019 by Faber & Faber in hardback and ebook, and is available from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing me with a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Laure Nicholl from Faber for organising and inviting me to take part in this blog tour. The tour continues until Friday 07 June so please do check out the other stops for more thoughts and features on The Rapture!