Reviewed by Sally Churchward.
I defy anyone to read even the cover of Claire McGlasson’s debut novel, and not be intrigued.
“This is the Garden of Eden. Hidden in plain sight. It was here in Bedford all along. Welcome to the Panacea Society, a terribly English cult.”
McGlasson’s work of fiction is expertly constructed, based on real events, pieced together from documents in the Panacea Society archive, including correspondence and published works.
McGlasson peppers her work with verbatim extracts from these documents, highlighting the original material.
What would have been a diverting and enjoyable read if it had been entirely fictional is made ten times more compelling by not only the knowledge that it is based on real events but also the inclusion of these documents, which at first seem amusingly suburban, but become increasingly unsettling as the story progresses.
McGlasson is a journalist and her experience in editing original material may have served her well in her expert selection and placement within the story of these extracts.
The first one sets the tone perfectly: “Wouldn’t a hostel – a ‘Land of Goshen’ – be lovely! Really devoted believers could take up nice homes in Bedford, which is a most lovely place and is going up by leaps and bounds. Selfridges is coming and has taken a huge block in the High Street.” Octavia, 1919.
We experience the Panacea Society through the eyes of Dylis, a devoted member of the almost entirely female cult. Despite her commitment, she seems to stand somewhat outside the society and to have a distinctly challenging relationship with its leader, Octavia.
She strikes up a friendship with a young woman, and introduces her society, but while at first she feels that this is a sign of God smiling her, the relationship contributes to a widening gulf between Dylis and the society. Faith is replaced by increasingly gnawing doubt.
This novel is an absolute page turner, which hooks you in, like the Society itself, immersing you in a bizarre and increasingly chilling world. As a reader, I found my experience shifting subtly from being gently amused by the Society and its rules, to finding it quite claustrophobic and alarming, echoing the journey of the principal character.
The ending left me a little dazzled and shaken, and I felt as if I was coming up for light from what had become a very dark place.
An expertly written novel, which balances depth of subject with lightness of touch, making a potentially difficult subject an easy read.
Published by Faber & Faber. Out now. Available from October Books, in Portswood, Southampton, and other retailers.