The Rapture by Liz Jensen is a novel pervaded by the theme of apocalypse. It is one of a growing number of novels to emerge in recent years concerned with climate change and environmental decline, demonstrating how such anxieties have become a pervasive concern in modern society. These novels, including examples such as David Brin’s Earth, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, often centre around apocalyptic events, using pre- and post-apocalyptic landscapes to consider the causes and consequences of environmental change. Within The Rapture, these concerns are presented alongside themes of sexuality, disability, and religion, creating a rich network of ideas that attempts to explore how social and environmental issues are interconnected.
The landscape of The Rapture, set in England in a not-so-distant future, is one in which, the effects of climate change and humanity’s attempts to cope with these changes has truly become ‘part of the landscape’ (TR, p.76). Beginning in medias res, the novel paints a vivid picture of a world under attack from ‘Maverick weather’:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up. In the parched suburbs, ice-cream vans plinked their baby tunes into streets that sweated tar. Down at the harbour, the sea reflected the sun in tiny, barbaric mirrors. Asphyxiated, you longed for rain. It didn’t come (TR, p.3).
In this claustrophobic opening passage, Jensen begins to create the narrative tension that will run throughout the novel. The repetitive use of short sentences, lists, and the preference of commas over connectives creates a stifled tone, which reflects the suffocating weather. The sky is given agency and becomes a violent force, the consonance of the hard k in ‘shrinking’, ‘cracking concrete’, and ‘killing’ adding a hardness to its actions. This violence is continued on the next page as the rain finally breaks and the ‘poltergeist winds’ continue their destruction: ‘clouds erupted’, ‘lightning electrocuted the water’, ‘passionate gusts punched at the sails of struggling boats’, ‘flattening’, ‘uprooting’, ‘smashing’ (TR, p.4). It is a vision of environmental upheaval that not only establishes the scene for the environmental disasters that follow, but also sets the tone for the psychological journey of the narrator.
Following the build-up to a devastating natural disaster, the narrative tells the story of Gabrielle Fox, a psychologist recovering from a brutal car accident that caused the death of her lover and unborn child as well as paralysing her from the waist down. In a wheelchair, Gabrielle takes up a new job at Oxsmith, a secure psychiatric hospital for minors, and is assigned the case of Bethany Krall, a violent and confrontational sixteen-year-old girl who was committed after stabbing her mother through the eye with a screwdriver. Bethany, who is receiving electric shock therapy, defies all attempts at therapy and instead claims to have prophetic powers of perception, making several predictions about impending natural disasters. Gabrielle initially dismisses these claims, attributing them to Bethany’s disturbed psychological state. However, as Bethany’s predictions repeatedly prove true Gabrielle is gradually forced to accept the truth and to consider the responsibility this knowledge engenders. When Bethany foresees a disaster of unparalleled destruction Gabrielle becomes involved in a desperate and dangerous effort to warn the world before it is too late.
Although the efficacy with which Jensen handles the climate change topic has received mixed reviews, her approach is notable for its self-reflexive commentary on the use of apocalyptic rhetoric within the environmental arena. Writing Bethany as a character that has been immersed in a strong biblical upcoming that she later rejects, Liz Jensen makes widespread use of the biblical narrative of apocalypse, using it to explore contemporary attitudes towards environmental disaster. Within this frame, apocalypse becomes a form of retribution and revelation, used to explore environmental anxiety, responsibility and guilt. While Bethany takes on the role of religious prophet, the environmental cataclysm that takes places at the end of the novel mocks the religious narrative by having the survivors lifted to safety by a helicopter. The novel also considers how perspective shapes the way in which we understand and react to the challenge of climate change. Debates around the existence and the urgency of the climate change emergency drive the plot of the novel. Bethany’s visions of environmental cataclysm are dismissed not only due to her questionable mental state but also because these ‘visions [are] already shared by half the population, along with a belief in miracles and tarot reading’ (TR, p.25). The belief in environmental apocalypse is therefore aligned with mysticism, discrediting it as a serious belief or prediction. Although no one can deny the worrying changes in the weather, the idea of one world-changing disaster is rejected as fearful imagination.
Overall the novel is a satisfying read with some interesting character development. Despite its clichés, I enjoyed the plot, and Jensen makes efforts to include well-researched and detailed information about the relevant science. However, I would have liked more development around the character of Gabrielle, whose character arc feels incomplete and whose struggle to come to terms with her altered physicality feeds into a wider preoccupation with the material body prevalent in recent climate change science fiction.