Liz Jensen is perhaps the best British novelist not quite to crack the big time, although she has been long-listed for the Orange Prize three times, has had a series of consistently good reviews, and it was only the tragedy of Anthony Minghella’s early death that prevented her fifth novel, The Ninth Life Of Louis Drax, being filmed. It was his next project. There are many fiction writers with eminently big names with whose work you tussle. I have yet to read a Liz Jensen novel I am able to put down without regret (I did once read one of hers straight through a single night). The new one, The Rapture, is another sensationally good one. It extends her range, whilst at the same time showing off the very many talents her writing possesses.
What Jensen particularly enjoys is a good old battle between science and evangelism (most notably in Ark Baby) – and the interest in science informs almost all of her fiction. She also has a genuine love of the macabre and the satirical. She doesn’t care what outrages are perpetrated by her characters, or what outrages are perpetrated on them. Her speakers have included a nine-year-old in a coma (The Ninth Life of Louis Drax), a time-travelling prostitute (My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time) and a selectively forgetful Alzheimer case (War Crimes for the Home). Her settings are often institutions of one kind or another, and The Rapture opens in a secure unit for disturbed adolescents – specifically, a young girl who has been brought up in the kind of hysterically evangelical home which makes the world of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit look cosy, and who has stabbed her mother to death. Gabrielle, the therapist (and narrator) investigating the girl is herself the wheelchair-bound victim of a car-crash. Already therefore, there are two mysterious plotlines – one of Jensen’s many talents is unfolding several stories at once.
However, there is a much more dynamic agenda here, which has to do with the consequences of exploiting the planet. Jensen is a writer who wants not only to tell a number of stories, but who wants to leave the reader with something to bite on. This is not her first attempt at the potential onset of global destruction (her third novel, The Paper Eater, is post-apocalyptic), but it goes further than any of her other novels in spelling out the potential damage of monkeying with the environment – in this case, drilling into the sea-bed for methane. It is exceptionally hard to do this without making a novel didactic, but the sheer pace with which Jensen keeps the narrative going allows her to manage it successfully.
Jensen’s sense of humour is very dark (which means it appeals to me). Someone apparently offered a radio review – sorry about the second-hand info – that it wasn’t as funny as her other novels. But if you read Jensen for laughs, then you are missing the point (and perhaps, if you don’t find The Rapture funny as well as moving, painful and energetic, you are missing the fact that Jensen’s novels have always been novels of ideas).
There are set pieces in this novel (which comes to an amazing, crowded climax) which are terrific. But at the heart of the novel is the character of the young girl, Bethany Krall, who is drawn with enthusiasm and sympathy, and whose vicious tendencies are cut with what we must suppose is second sight, since she can predict the dates on which natural disasters will take place. And underlying the novel are Jensen’s two very particular strengths: her ear for dialogue (improved by her experience as a radio producer), and her interesting, you might almost say poetic flights. Her narratives are interesting for their images, images which any poets might feel envious of. After an apocalypse,
Mosques, their domes popped open like puffballs, gape up at the sky.
Of a storm,
The thunder’s on a spin-and-tumble cycle and the sky is mottled with grey and black cloud… we watch the sky froth and churn. The view is operatic, the arms of white windmills revolving intently in the distance, forked lightning cracking over the ink-pool of the sea, trees straining at their roots, their canopies stirred up like seaweed, sometimes a filament whipping off to become a missile…
If you haven’t read a novel by Jensen, start here, and hunt down the others. If you have read a novel by Jensen, you don’t need me to tell you to read this one.
Liz Jensen’s The Rapture is published by Bloomsbury for £16.99. You can read more about her by clicking on her website here.