The Raptures, by Jan Carson, Doubleday, 336 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0857525758
“I knew the future was not for us. Things don’t change here,” the exasperated eleven-year-old Hannah remarks while watching the news in Jan Carson’s The Raptures, which continues the author’s blisteringly brilliant exploration of her native Northern Ireland through a magical realist lens. Carson’s third novel ingeniously reworks the Children of Lir myth by transposing it onto 1990s rural Northern Ireland, where a mysterious illness plagues a group of schoolchildren against the backdrop of the Troubles.
Her previous novel, The Fire Starters (2019), won the EU Prize for Literature for its searing depiction of Protestant culture in her adopted home of East Belfast. The Raptures is shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, and like its predecessor, it also portrays heightened tensions within Northern Protestantism during the parade season in a summer of violence. Despite several local children dying, the village of Ballylack will not “for a second, consider cancelling. It’s the eleventh of July and burning Sinn Féin posters is their God-ordained right.” Hannah’s family does not attend parades or bonfires, nor do they belong to the Orange Order. A shy girl, she is desperate to fit in with the other kids and laments, “We’re not the popular kind of Protestant. There aren’t that many of us.” As her Granda Pete – a former UVF man whose faded tattoos peek out from underneath his cardigan sleeves – tells her: “Prods are like potatoes. There’s five dozen varieties.”
In her latest novel Carson turns her gaze to evangelical Ulster Protestants, a minority community whose culture remains underrepresented in Irish literature. Carson was Ballymena-bred and reared in the evangelical tradition, and she affirms that The Raptures is “the book I’ve been trying to write for twenty years”. The result is worth the wait. It is a virtuosic tragicomedy, brimful of Carson’s incandescent imagination, big-hearted storytelling, and bracingly funny social commentary.
In the novel, Hannah watches helplessly as her fellow students die one by one and enter a kind of purgatory, their ghosts returning to visit her so they can brag about their afterlives. She reacts in shock but most of them seem unfazed, announcing matter-of-factly, “I’m dead, so I am.” One tells her: “I’ve never been that scared of dying myself. Sure, you really can’t be, if you’re from here. Because of the Troubles, I mean. Anybody could get killed at any time. You know my mum got blown up when I was wee?” Hannah’s former classmates inform her that “the other Ballylack” where they have gone is an alternate future, and they are now young adults and in charge. Noting that the real Ballylack is “a bit of a shithole”, they boast, “We’ve got our own wee kingdom down here,” and claim that there are “no limits” for young people in this eerily magical non-place.
Hannah is the only one who can see and hear these apparitions, and she questions whether she has been “set apart” due to her evangelical faith. Previously, she had envisioned the end of the world according to thunderous Sunday sermons:
Pastor Bill … explain[ed] how the world was now entering the end times. Between the peace talks and the advent of the world wide web, barcodes and the EEC, all the Biblical prophecies had been fulfilled. The Lord would soon be coming again. Hannah had sat there every Sunday, drinking the Apocalypse in like a wee sponge.
Until this point not much has happened in Ballylack, a fictional iteration of “any other one-street village, orbiting a market town” with a “farmy smell” in Northern Ireland. Villagers are circumscribed by their own narrow worldview in Ballylack, where “you can practically hear the fences. They couldn’t be more limited if they tried.” This insular rural setting is seemingly distanced from the Troubles, which only reach the majority of people in Ballylack via nightly news broadcasts:
Elsewhere in the Province, they’re still at it; killing each other with bombs and guns. … The people here are sick of death. This isn’t a Third World country. This is Britain. Or this is Ireland. Or both. Or neither. … Either way it’s a civilized country. It’s been a whole two years since McDonald’s arrived. It should never have got to the state it’s in.
Told from a child’s perspective, the novel is redolent of 90s nostalgia, with “the tinny speakers of GAA clubs and community centres where Ulster’s youth hang out” blasting pop tunes by all the chart-toppers: “Shaggy. Ace of Base. 2 Unlimited.” Much to her frustration, Hannah is not allowed to listen to these songs, let alone dance to them. Other forbidden activities include crimping her hair, wearing fashionable outfits from Belfast shops like “Miss Selfridge, Tammy Girl, C&A”, chewing gum, going to the cinema, and asking her parents about the Troubles. Hannah has a hazy view of the conflict, reflecting, “I don’t know why we have the Troubles here but I know it’s us children who deserve something better. We’re the future of Northern Ireland. We had a special assembly about it last month.” When the children are given an essay assignment on Northern Ireland’s future, Hannah “wasn’t really thinking about the future at all. When I did it was only near things I focused on: the end of the summer and big school in town.”
The children are encouraged to write “words about peace” in their essays and they mindlessly reiterate what they know grown-ups would want them to say. Hannah recounts, “Every year our school goes on a trip with the ones from Tullybarret Primary … The teachers made us walk round with the Catholics. We were meant to be … making friends with each other so the Troubles would end and we could get peace. We didn’t know what to talk about.” The novel is set in 1993, a momentous year when proposed paramilitary ceasefires were punctuated by massive atrocities, the UK government rejected calls for a new inquest into Bloody Sunday, and the Downing Street Declaration was signed by British PM John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. It was a notable year for talking about peace, and Hannah perceives that “talk of talks has made everybody edgy”. Secret talks held between SLDP leader John Hume and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams became public knowledge following a report in the Sunday Tribune, and these negotiations were criticised by numerous parties.
Nevertheless, many people felt that talking to “the other side” was a good thing: “We want something better for our weans. Them lot need to wise up and start talking to each other.” Watching the local broadcasts, Hannah muses, “I’m not sure who’s stopped talking to who. Ian Paisley’s never done talking and Gerry Adams talked so much they’ve got somebody else to do his voice.” As the peace talks begin to falter, Hannah hears “there’s talk of Clinton wading into the Troubles. … Word is, he thinks he can sort it out.” When she tries to ask her father how the talks are developing, he refuses to speak to her about it. She recalls, “He said it wasn’t the sort of thing wee girls should be thinking about. According to Dad there’s lots of things wee girls shouldn’t think about. We don’t talk about the Troubles in our house.”
She turns to Granda Pete for an explanation of the Troubles and he exclaims, “This bloody country. Always forcing you to pick a side.” He emphasises to her that this is the root of sectarianism, and Hannah begins to understand how this affects her granda’s beliefs. She observes, “It’s just the way they preach religion here. It’s neither wide nor wonderful enough to accommodate his idea of the divine. He’s always wondered why Ulster Prods are so intent upon putting God in a box.” Carson depicts rural Northern Ireland as a paradoxical place, where parallel pasts and futures collide. Here, fairy trees and faith healers rub up against big tent Revivalists and “the normal sort of Protestants”. as well as immigrant families from China and the Philippines, their different beliefs cautiously coexisting and sometimes clashing.
Initially, Ballylack is united by concern for Hannah’s classmates: “Everybody’s sympathetic. Nationalist and Unionist alike. Situations involving children tend to straddle the political divide.” Horrified parents appeal to their neighbours, their ministers, the army, “the BBC and UTV”, “Downtown Radio, the Belfast Telegraph,” and “Big Ian himself” for help, and the story even makes the “mainland news”. However, they agree that “the last thing they need is the paramilitaries wading in. Or the politicians. Perish the thought. All talk. No action from that lot.” When the crisis escalates, it rouses suspicion regarding what or who is responsible, and Hannah’s world starts to fall apart. “Everybody has a theory. Everybody’s quick to share,” Carson writes. While some residents blame “the ones from Tullybarret”, the neighbouring Catholic village, others counter, “Naw, it’ll have been Travellers. … Or provos, I’d put good money on the provos. I tell you it was boys come up from the South.” Soon, the villagers begin to turn on each other.
The novel closes on a note of measured optimism, as Hannah finally comes into her own and chooses hope when faced with profound loss and continued conflict. Carson’s capacious creative imagination is “wide and wonderful enough” to accommodate a multitude of possibilities for Northern Ireland’s children in the future, if its people commit to making real change now. As its name indicates, the story of Ballylack allegorises the lack of opportunities for young people in Northern Ireland, a place that is haunted by the ghosts of lost futures. Hannah’s teacher paraphrases the late northern journalist Lyra McKee when she assures her pupils that “it’s not always going to be like this. Eventually it’s going to get better here.” Carson’s focus on the childhoods of the ceasefire generation in the novel offers powerful insight into our contemporary moment. For The Raptures looks back in time to the peace process in order to make an incisive cultural commentary on how we arrived at our current condition. Amid Brexit belligerence, paramilitary bomb scares during cross-community peacebuilding events, and bellowing politicians repeatedly threatening to “bring down Stormont” ahead of the May 2022 Assembly election, Northern Ireland’s future remains in limbo. If we want it to get better, now is the time to act.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Scholar in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She is co-editor of the anthology Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). You can find her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.