Sunday, July 26, 2009
The Book of Rapture
Gemmell, Nikki. The Book of Rapture.
Certainly my favorite book this year. I've pondered the book all week: recommending it to all the people in the yoga teacher-training class, bending my husband's ear (he came to Austin this weekend to visit), thinking about the many instances in which daily events keep reminding me of the awesome collection of quotes that conclude each chapter, and being grateful for all those serendipitous events that bring the right book to you at just the right time. And this, for me, was the perfect time.
How to give just enough information to whet your appetite, and yet, not give too much away? This is a story that encompasses love of family, courage in the face of fearful consequences, the conflict between science and religion (in this novel, both science and religion have much to answer for), and the cultural/religious differences that can escalate and result in crimes against humanity.
Gemmell presents a cautionary tale that our global society needs to contemplate, to force ourselves into a deeper examination of our own values and the values of other cultures.
In an unknown country, a political prisoner (a woman, a wife, a mother), writes a manuscript in Latin so that her words will be safe from her jailers. The beginning of the book is disjointed, with information coming piecemeal and keeping you off balance. You know only that there is so much about her situation that you don't yet understand and that much of what is written is confusing because you don't have enough information. She writes in a kind of stream of consciousness, with flashbacks and unexplained episodes. Eventually, Prisoner 57775 settles in and the reader gains enough knowledge of the situation to begin putting things together.
We understand that the woman (who is never named, and only later do we understand why), was a scientist with Project Indigo, but we have no details of what the project entails. Her husband removes himself from the project early on and wants her to withdraw as well. He believes that she (and all those working on the project) are getting above themselves, failing to understand the moral implications of their actions.
The woman, however, is too involved with the science and with the possibility of enhancing her reputation; by the time she does finally agree with her husband, they must go into hiding. Eventually, however, they are discovered.
Most of the novel concerns her children, her vast love for them, and how they must adjust to a dangerous situation, in hiding and without parental love and protection. The children all grow emotionally during their confinement, alternately keeping faith and failing, reminding themselves of what their parents have taught them, finding the strength and weaknesses in themselves, succeeding, failing, and trying again.
All of the main characters must have faith and trust in each other and the hope that things will, at some point, turn out right so that the family can be reunited. The mother, the author of the manuscript, finds a spiritual base that she had rejected before. It is not organized religion or dogma that she discovers, but an understanding of what her husband meant when he said to her, "People who completely deny spirituality are missing what it is to be fully human--with all its fallibility and mess and stupidity, yes, but all its glory...and beauty."
Each chapter ends with a quote--from the Bible, the Koran, the Rig Vedas, the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, Hafiz, Matthew Arnold, Philip Larkin, Goethe, etc.
The second chapter begins with "Nothing evolves us like love" and the novel ends with the same quote by Hafiz. Each quote is appropriate to its chapter. Some of my favorites:
"The small man builds cages for everyone he knows." Hafiz
"What we speak becomes the house we live in." Hafiz
"My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." Dalai Lama
"As soon as you hold the view that this is 'true', friction arises; because the opposite view must then be termed 'false'." Buddha
"Is it true that our destiny is to turn into light itself?" Hafiz
"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." The Bible
"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." Dalai Lama
Science certainly has the potential for great good...and for great evil. The same can be said of religion. Some of the most horrendous crimes have, historically, been committed in the name of religion. Project Indigo (and scientists may be investigating similar solutions even now) has frightening implications, but Prisoner 57775 resists the pressure to give her jailers what they want while trying to be sure that her children are safe.
This ARC is a book that I will treasure, and I'm very grateful to the Fourth Estate in London for sending it to me and to Nikki Gemmell for writing this remarkable book. Thank you.
Fiction. 2009. 269 pages.