‘The Book of Rapture’ by Nikki Gemmell


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.


15 thoughts on “‘The Book of Rapture’ by Nikki Gemmell

  1. This sounds like a very interesting read. Does the second person narrator bother yo after a while? I always find second person narration hard to take after a few pages.


  2. The only thing that bothered me was how on earth the narrator could see what was going on given that her children were locked up in a basement; was she secretly observing them from an adjacent room? At one point her husband accuses her of “playing god” so perhaps that’s what she was doing… I’ll never really know. Although I have my own opinion on how she was able to do it, which I can’t share for fear of spoiling the plot.


  3. I’ve got this one too! I have to admit that the premise put me off a bit – but now I’ve read this I think I’ll have another look. I agree with cbjames, though. I think the second person narrator is a really difficult one to sustain, so it will be interesting to see how she keeps that going.


  4. I think it helps that the chapters are very short — sometimes only a page — so you don’t feel like you’re reading large tracts of a voice written in the second person.
    The tone, however, is a little detached and cold in places, so while I’ve given the book four stars, I didn’t *love* the story, but I very much appreciated what Gemmell was trying to convey.


  5. Great review. I am familiar with Gemmells writing having read ‘Shiver’ with my Australian bookgroup and based on her experiences with that scientific expedition to Antartica you mention. I remember that novel being very ‘raw’ and she tells it just like it is!
    We will be choosing our books for our 2010 schedule in a few months time and I could nominate this for one consideration as it sounds like it has some interesting themes worth discussing.


  6. I was intrigued by your review to the extent that I am getting the one Nikki Gemmell novel available here. This novel is called “Alice Springs”. I’m wondering if this is one of the novels mentioned in your review, but with a different name here in the states. I’m quite sure it is the same author as there are many references to Australia in its on-line review.


  7. I am glad I read your review as I am about 50 pages into this novel and finding it tough going. I am still trying to get a handle on the narrative technique – not having read many (if at all) second-person novels. I too have spent the entire novel so far trying to work out how the mother is “seeing” her children! I want to keep going with this novel as I have heard (like your review here) that it tackles many interesting topics but it is definitely outside my comfort zone – which is not such a bad thing, in and of itself 😉


  8. Hang in there, Samantha. I’ll admit it took me awhile to get used to the writing style. I found it easier to read the book in a few long sittings rather than lots of little ones; you need to give your brain plenty of time to absorb the voice. Can’t wait to hear what you think of it when you finally reach the end.


  9. Just finished the book and yes it was difficult to read at first however as I progressed I found it enthralling. I kept trying to determine where they were – which country. Initially I thought they were set in war torn Germany but the references were so modern I am left thinking Afganastan or somewhere like that. No piercings, no tatoos, no died hair — closed borders — a regime of terror.


  10. I reckon it’s probably the UK and this is Gemmell’s attempt at warning us about what lies in wait if we don’t start easing up on all the surveillence and paranoia that pervades British society.


  11. Sometimes book blogging is totally frustrating because you keep reading of books you’d like to read, but you know you just don’t have the time. I have a pile TBR several feet high and would love to fit this one in , but . . .


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