Fiction - paperback; Fourth Estate; 269 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Nikki Gemmell is an Australian author based in London who achieved international acclaim with her 2003 novel The Bride Stripped Bare, which was originally published anonymously on the basis that the subject matter was too provocative.
Prior to this she wrote three other novels -- Shiver; Cleave (published in the USA as Alice Springs); and Love Song -- none of which I've read. However, I've long been familiar with Gemmell's work, mainly as a broadcast journalist, first, on Triple J, the ABC's youth network, back in the early 1990s (she filed memorable reports on a scientific expedition from Antarctica; her girlie voice used to grate), and second, more recently as a commentator on the BBC's Newsnight Review.
This latest novel, The Book of Rapture, is a strangely haunting story set in an unnamed country at an unspecified time. It feels dystopian but lacks the true grit and misery of that genre, and yet there's something slightly creepy and oppressive about it.
The story is narrated in the second person by a married woman whose involvement in a top secret scientific project has put her life, and the lives of her young family and husband, in danger. To protect her children -- her daughter Soli and twin boys, Tidge and Mouse -- from the security forces she has them drugged and spirited away to a secret hiding place. When the children wake up they find themselves alone in a basement room, where they are supplied with food and occasional companionship by a family friend, B. But when B stops coming they find themselves having to survive without any adult supervision whatsoever, which makes them take risks that other, less resourceful, children would shy away from...
This is a weird premise for a novel but it's an exciting one. The narrator's omnipresent voice means you experience the children's actions through the mother's loving eyes, and so when she is fearful for them the tension ratchets up a few notches, making this a particular heart-hammering read in places.
But it's also a highly intellectual read, because this book explores many difficult, rarely discussed topics that are so pertinent to the way we live our lives today. The narrator, having developed a weapon of mass destruction like no other, finds herself questioning her husband's spirituality, because, to her, religion and science are incompatible. Indeed, she later tells her son that she was wary of religion because
...you hated all the rules and boring lectures, you thought it was a weakness, a lack of intelligence, and you're not into all that dependent thought. 'It's this beautiful, singing lie, my lovely, and eventually all the faiths around us will exist nowhere but the history books'.
The novel also raises questions about whether it is possible to be moral and ethical without believing in God. And it also explores whether goodness can evolve (although, interestingly, it doesn't look at the other side of the coin: whether evil exists or how it develops).
There's a lot here about raising children and how their upbringing can shape their world view, as well as the struggle between opposites who are married to one another and the compromises they must make to ensure their love survives.
But the overriding message I came away with was this: that it is possible for humans to grow and change and become less judgmental and more compassionate, and that the differences between people -- their races, religions and societies -- should be cherished not abhorred.
As you might be able to tell, The Book of Rapture provides much to cogitate on and mull over and digest. It's quite unlike anything I've read before and so it felt entirely new and fresh and experimental, a genuine credit to the writer when you consider how many books I've read in my lifetime.