Whilst Claire McGlasson’s debut novel The Rapture is a work of fiction, it is based on the remarkable true story of the Panacea Society, an English religious community that flourished in Bedfordshire in the early twentieth century.

Set in 1926, we follow Dilys, a devoted Panacean desperate to gain the approval of Octavia, the society’s charismatic leader and self-proclaimed ‘Daughter of God’. Living within the confines of the Panacean’s ‘Garden of Eden’ Dilys’ life is ordered and confined until the day she meets Grace, a new recruit. Already unsettled by the changes wrought in the society since the ascension of the redoubtable Emily to the position of Octavia’s right-hand woman, Grace’s presence awakens new doubts in Dilys – and new desires.

The Rapture is an utterly fascinating novel that skillfully weaves together fact and fiction to create a compelling and vibrant story of, as the blurb says, a terribly English cult.

Unlike some novels that deal with ‘cults’, McGlasson has provided sympathetic renditions of many of the society’s members, showing them to be women with deeply held convictions and genuine beliefs. At the same time, she has also crafted a story that highlights the dangers of collective belief and groupthink – and of the personal politics and shifting interpersonal powerplays that can creep into such organisations.

Dilys is a particularly well-rounded character, coming across as a confused young woman uncertain of her place in the world and struggling to process new found knowledge and increasing self-realisation against the long-standing and deeply held beliefs that she holds dear. McGlasson’s portrayal of Dilys’ fracturing mental state is particularly well crafted, and her intense first-person narration reminded me of being inside the head of Offred in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Historical fiction fans are sure to find a great deal to enjoy here and the novel would be perfect for fans of Emma Cline’s The Girls, or Jennie Melmed’s Gather the Daughters.

Highly recommended, The Rapture is a vibrant, unsettling and moving coming-of-age tale that is sure to keep you reading late into the evening.

Amy Lousie Blaney, The Shelf of Unread Books, 5/5

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson
Faber & Faber 9780571345175 hbk Jun 2019