Jan Carson lived in our QUB Chaplaincy community at Derryvolgie Hall. Jan often talked about being a novelist. I spent a lot of time around an array of artists and know how difficult it is to make it.
Jan certainly had the desire. For sure she has worked hard at it. The Raptures is her third novel among a clatter of other books and the first thing I surmise is that she must surely have become one of our very best literary writers.
Her writing has this ability to lilt along, all conversational. The writing seems to have been easy but is thoroughly crafted. She has this way of putting words on a page that you can actually hear them. That lilt in Ballylack, where The Raptures is set, has a very definite rural country Antrim accent!
On top of this seeming writers ease she can throw original metaphors, catch you out with laugh out loud funnies in places that you don’t expect and create very authentic ordinary people in very ordinary places that feel very very familiar.
Now, Jan does fancy herself as a magic realist. She blames it on a year long preaching series on Revelation in her Church when she was about 8! In The Raptures that cooky part come out in children visiting our main protagonist Hannah Adger after they have died. They appear in her bath, her bedroom, when she is on the toilet!
The children dying is the central story of the book, which is neither light or humorous but somehow without eradicating the sadness and sorrow never becomes too heavy. Carson has empathy.
The deaths start as a mystery as one by one the children in the same Primary School class pass away. The book is almost a mystery that turns thriller. Yet, it all happens in this rural village, the interactions of which are more the point of the book than the whodunnit and what’ll happen next.
Jan Carson has some issues with growing up in a Protestant village and particularly in a conservative evangelical home. The role of women in home, church and society gets a constant poking.
With the village I think she does a good job of showing the positives and the negatives. A community where everyone knows everyone can stand together when tragedies like this one happen. On the other side a community that knows each other too well can be fractious and judgementally gossipy. As for Maganda a Philippino wife…
It’s Maganda’s son Ben or Bayani, as is his real name, who nails the issue of Ballylack and any other small parochial place or narrow Church group. “You’re afraid of anything that’s different. You’re afraid of things changing. You’re afraid of everything staying the same. You’re afraid of upsetting people around you by drawing attention to yourself. You’re afraid of being honest about what you’re really like. Basically, you’re afraid of yourselves.” I wonder how long Jan Carson has had that paragraph welling up inside of her.
Fear is very much a root of the problem in the evangelical Christian psyche. Even with the best intentions of withdrawal from life and those people and things that might be spiritually dangerous can lead to arrogance, hypocrisy, exclusivity and a lack of love while over indulging in damning everything outside yourselves. Hannah’s dad’s feuds with her loving Granda Pete is the best illustration here.
I utterly resonated with the scene when Pastor Bill was in the hospital ward with Hannah and wants to use a pastoral prayer as a conduit to preach to everyone else in the ward. This is not what a pastoral prayer is for. It is an abuse of ministry. So I love the line - "Sinead McConville Nil by Mouth gives him the finger and then adding insult to injury, swiftly crosses herself”. LOL!
Yet, Jan knows there is some good in there. I find Hannah’s honest wrestling with faith and God and prayer a good thing. I am obviously not against church leaders praying for Hannah. There are moments though where I think the prayer ministry can become a circus rather than a compassionate focus on the one being prayed for.
Which is when Hannah’s mother, like all women in Ballylack submissive to their husbands until now, stands up to her husband and throws the great Belfast healer out of the house to simply be with her daughter in what might be her time of dying. Indeed, does God heal when a sense of justice and love has won and the circus of religion has had their tables turned over?
It is a fascinating twist to the seemingly constant suspicion of belief and prayer that a miracle does happen. At the end of the book, having exposed many of the short falls of narrow faith communities, the cynical secular are also exposed. When the crisis management officer assigned to the village during the tragedy is summing up he has a major issue - the ‘miracle’ word.
“He keeps the details loose and thin. He’s been told to stick to medical terms - full recovery, cured, prognosis - avoid all mention of holy shenanigans.”
A mystery one might call it and that is what Jan named at the 4 Corners Festival as one of her biggest frustrations with the modern church.
There is so much more in this book. There are Carson loves throughout - a wee bit of Casualty here, a smidgen of Poirot there, the influence of Flannery O’Connor and Anna Burns everywhere and a beautiful Bob Dylan throwaway - “5 believers” - obviously!
I haven’t even got to the dead kids who remain in another Ballylack repeating the divisions and fractions of their parents!
Which might lead us to some nihilist hopelessness but do not let it because the book’s first and last lines are paraphrases of a Lyra McKee quote - “It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.”