The Raptures by Jan Carson review – visions in a Northern Irish village

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Two strange things happen in a Northern Irish village in the summer holidays of 1993. First, Hannah’s classmates start dying. Then, one by one, they return to haunt her. There’s a pattern to the deaths. Strange lumps cluster on the victim’s skin, they become feverish, then their organs fail. Within hours of their passing – and even before the village’s well-oiled gossip machine has begun spreading the news – they come to Hannah. Each appears just once, flicking through magazines in the doctor’s surgery, or scrunched up in the darkness of the bathroom as Hannah gropes her way in for a wee. They are subtly changed: older, with a coat of nail polish here, a drop of extra confidence there. After a few words, they vanish.

Two questions propel Carson’s compassionate and meticulously observed third novel. Why has this plague hit Ballylack? And why, of all her class, is Hannah the one blessed with apparent health, and cursed with strange visions?

Jan Carson won the European Union prize for literature with her previous novel, The Fire Starters.
Jan Carson won the European Union prize for literature with her previous novel, The Fire Starters. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Carson was born in Ballymena, the Antrim village whose famously pious council banned Electric Light Orchestra and Brokeback Mountain. Now living in Belfast, she has spoken of her desire to give a voice to the Protestant experience in the province. Her previous novel, The Fire Starters, which won the European Union prize for literature, set a magical siren among sectarian violence in a carefully drawn Belfast. The Raptures brings a similar mix of granular detail and uncanny happenings to Ballylack, a village whose name and religious conservatism carry more than an echo of her birthplace.

Here, homes bear “wonky paintings of the Queen, Princess Di and King Billy”, local pastors boom at the pulpit and schoolboy drummers soundtrack Orange marches. One mum is banned from demonstrating yoga at the school fair; Hannah’s evangelical household don’t let her study dinosaurs or sing Beatles songs. The orthodoxy can be crushing, but Ballylack is no monolith. Some residents come from the Philippines or China, and not everyone is a church regular. There’s a “fairy tree” on the edge of town and a folk healer in the neighbouring village, while the era of alcopops, 2 Unlimited and bomber jackets is dawning for Hannah’s pre-teen class.

Ballylack’s miniature pandemic tears holes in this community. Bereaved parents turn on each other, or reach out towards vigilante justice. Those with faith wonder if it is strong enough. News reporters swarm around the houses of ailing children. Seán, a crisis management officer brought in to investigate, scrabbles to find the outbreak’s cause, until one of Hannah’s ghostly visitors drops a clue.

Shy but resolute Hannah is Carson’s main focus, but The Raptures slips through Ballylack like a sympathetic spirit, checking in on parents and children and spending time with fixer Seán, taciturn farmer Alan and his wife, Maganda. The narrative voice takes on the tics, rhythms and thoughts of the characters, occasionally stumbling but never falling. Instead it rolls out in a great, chatty cascade, drawing the reader into the community’s fraying confidence and driving the story onward.

The result is an intriguingly mixed-up book. The Raptures is a study of village life that brings the easy familiarity of a sitcom to its cast, but it’s also an Agatha Christie-esque whodunnit, a dark supernatural mystery and an account of mass trauma. Carson forges these parts into a tragicomedy in which fantastic elements slot almost seamlessly alongside kitchen-sink realism. Given Hannah is the novel’s centrepiece, this makes a fair bit of sense: why wouldn’t a child who’s spent many Sundays “drinking in the Apocalypse like a wee sponge” view ghostly classmates as just another of life’s mysteries?

Hannah takes a singular path through the grim plague and Ballylack’s religious groupthink, and Carson ends The Raptures on a note of measured optimism. The village may be battered and grieving, but there’s patience and kindness here too, and green shoots that stubbornly poke through the scorched earth.

The Raptures is published by Doubleday (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.