As soon as I saw the description of this book, I felt myself beginning to be lured in… It tells the story of the Panacea Society, a group of devoted, religious, (mostly) women, who live their lives according to the dedicated principles of the Society and their zealous leader, Octavia. The Society believe that salvation for humanity is coming – it will be brought by women, channelled through Octavia, the Daughter of God. Even more intriguing, I then realised that the Panacea Society this story is based on was a real English cult, founded in 1919. Curiouser and curiouser! By the time I picked the book up, I was so intrigued to peek behind the curtain and discover more about these remarkable women.
Our protagonist is Dilys, who is one of the youngest members of the Panacea Society. Dilys strikes a friendship with Grace, a woman she meets at church, and Grace soon comes to visit the institution’s base in Bedford (which the members believe to be the original Garden of Eden). As Grace learns more about the peculiar world of the Society, as readers we are initiated along with her, as we too are shown the specific doctrines and conventions that rule the Society. There are peculiar restrictions around decorum (such as not eating too loudly); healing squares of linen infused with the sacred breath of Octavia; revalries which bring forth the words of God…the unsettling truths are revealed slowly, and my unease began to grow and grow as a fuller picture of this world appeared before me. Dilys is very much at the centre of this fascinating world, as she attempts to navigate both the increasing votilaty of the society and her growing connection to Grace.
McGlasson’s writing is simply sublime, creating an atmosphere that I felt so entirely, and almost physically. The mood of this novel will stay with me for a very long time; I felt a number of things all at once – intrigue, fear, deep empathy, suspicion, a sadness I couldn’t shake. There is an ember glowing at the heart of this book, that flickers, and slowly grows – constantly threatening to engulf everything, but also bringing a warmth – like the hope of salvation that the members of the Panacea Society hold onto.
I was also struck by the sensitively with which McGlasson told these women’s stories. It was apparent that she had consulted historical documents and the recorded truth with a lot of care and attention. Weaving these together into this fictitous narrative, she invites us to view the lives of these women from many lenses: collectively, as individuals; through their personal relations; through their mental states, and also through their time and place in society. Particularly striking for me was the novel’s remarkable reflection on what it means to be a women in a world that has been built by men – women who try to tell their own narrative in a world written by men. As Dilys reflects when viewing a stained glass windows depicting Bunyan’s allegories of heroes and knights: women are not given epic narratives of battles and glory. Their strength comes from endurance, both physical and mental. These are the female narratives that I found here and loved most about this novel.
The Rapture, by Claire McGlasson is out today (6th June 2019), with Faber and Faber. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book in return for an honest review.