Nikki Gemmell: The Book of Rapture. HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN: 9780732289249. Online
London-based Australian writer Nikki Gemmell has become synonymous with her R-rated best-seller, The Bride Stripped Bare. The joke is that she penned it anonymously. There's no such diffidence with the release of her new novel, The Book of Rapture. In fact, Gemmell's name sits boldly on the cover. Could it be because this time the uneasy bedfellows are science, religion and family?
Initially Rapture appears to borrow directly from its predecessor. A mysterious manuscript finds its way, through several channels, to the public domain. We are told that the book 'is a historical enigma. Its author, provenance and audience are unknown to us ... Near the beginning, and at the end, is the haunting statement, "Now is the time when what you believe is put to the test".'
Under the microscope is the sanctity of marriage and family. It looms large as both testament of love and as ball and chain for the three young children at the heart of the book. We learn that it's their mother — fearless and ferocious in her love for them — whose deadly ambition has put their lives in danger.
Details are revealed slowly. The children have been drugged and taken to a safe house. They are alone because their parents are fugitives, having broken away from the nefarious Project Indigo, a government-sponsored eradication scheme, which only their mother, a scientist, can put into action. Their father, Motl, is absent; their mother, nameless, somehow nearby, but inexorably cut off.
'So. They are in there. Your children,' the narrative opens. 'Close but you cannot reach them, talk to them.' Such is the heart-quickening urgency created by Gemmell's twitchy staccato. I read that the book was inspired by her fierce reaction to the London bombings in July 2005. So it's no wonder she pulls out all stops in breathing life into these impish souls, delighting in each detail, nuance and rivalry of the sibling dynamic.
This rendering makes the force that shadows the children's every move all the more invidious. Gemmell sure knows how to get the hairs on the back of the neck to bristle: 'Rain whipped. Sky pressing into the land, pummelling it; wet hammering the windows like a giant flinging pebbles; as if heaven itself was stopping anyone listening in.'
At the core of the threat is the doctrine: 'Do unto them now as they shall do to us tomorrow.' Clearly biblical in origin, but twisted into something other; it's a 'slogan of the people', conversely — and perversely — divested of all humanity.
'People who completely deny spirituality are missing what it is to be fully human,' Motl tells his wife as she steadily grows more Promethean in her aspirations. 'With all its fallibility and mess and stupidity, yes, but all its glory ... and beauty.'
Earlier the 'biologist in him ruminated once that religion is about enduring, in a survival-of-the-fittest sense. "Maybe it gives you strength. Maybe we're programmed by evolution to have belief. Maybe it's in our genes."'
Watching her trapped children grapple like lab rats forces a change of mind, heart and, most importantly, spirit. The scientist/sceptic must die in order for the mother to be reborn. Her family's survival depends upon it.
Does Gemmell take us along on a journey? For the most part, yes. Certainly, she is a master moodist, and almost every word shimmers with intent, even if the meaning is, at times, ambiguous; e.g. 'All the cosiness in their room vanished like a candle blown out. Your heart pebbles with it' (my italics).
Gemmell ends each chapter with pithy quotations taken from the Bible, the Koran and Confucius, among other texts (although is it really necessary to have them italicised and underlined?).
But the narrator raises larger questions. Whose voice is it? Is it the mother? If so, then how can she see and know everything? Is she a ghost, and therefore omniscient? Perhaps, but this just throws in yet another never-to-be-explained curveball. Also where does the mother end and the author begin?
That said, this is undeniably a brave book. Gemmell, an agnostic, isn't afraid to confront uncomfortable themes in order to glean a glimmer of understanding. Religion and science may not have the selling power of sex, but each have indelibly shaped individuals as well as history. Add family to the intriguing mix, as Rapture does, and you have a complex, confronting novel that aims well above the belt.
Jen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend.