After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry
This is not a book I would have ordinarily picked up but I was so besotted by The Essex Serpent, my stand-out book of 2016 by a country mile, that I was tempted to explore her debut novel, After Me Comes The Flood. I was not disappointed and found the book strangely compelling.
Without giving too much away, a bookseller named John Cole walks out of his shop after 35 days of drought and drives towards the Norfolk coast to visit his brother. On the way his car breaks down – unreliable motors seem a frequent literary motif in books I have read in the last couple of years – and instead of ringing the AA as most of us would have done, he sets out on foot and comes across a house. He is welcomed in by the occupants – a strange crew consisting of a former preacher, Elijah (natch), a beautiful pianist, Eve, the ingénue Claire and her fragile brother Alex, a sinister man called Walker and the matriarch of the house, Hester. What is more, they seem to be expecting him, indeed waiting impatiently for him to arrive.
The book relates events over a week, a chapter for each day. The style is a mix of first person as John tells us of his thoughts and experiences and third person narrative. The first part of the book deals with John’s attempts to find out what this small community is all about, why they are there and his fears as to what they might do if they discover that he is an impostor, something Walker suspects from the outset. John seems unable to leave the house, even though he has opportunity to do so. Perry portrays a place where the atmosphere is claustrophobic and disconcerting in an excellent first half.
For me some of the tension went out of the book when we learn why everyone knew John’s name and who they are and how they fit together. The characters are rather one-dimensional, almost caricatures and little attempt is made to get us to warm to any of them. What the book may lack in that direction, it more than makes up for it in the portrayal of a sense of doom hanging over the community. Perry’s descriptions are evocative and laden with atmosphere – it has a touch of the Gothic. The principal fear, at least of Alex with whom John forms a friendship, is that a storm cometh which will cause the reservoir nearby to breach and inundate the community.
I will not spoil the ending but it merits careful reading. Perry’s prose has a dreamlike quality which complements her development of this strange environment. There are symbols galore – who is Eadwacer? What are the implications of the two meat hooks hanging in the kitchen, the graffiti carved in the furniture and the broken sundial? Save for a telephone call and a reference to a mobile phone there is a timeless quality to the story. It is probably set in the modern-day but it doesn’t really matter. Events occur in a vacuum. As Perry says, you don’t have to know the meaning of everything; you just have to know it has meaning.
If I had to quibble I would say the plot is a bit thin and the second half of the book is not a patch on the first. As a debut novel, it is extraordinary and you can see the seeds that gave birth to the Essex Serpent. If you were only to read one of her books, read that. If you choose to read both, come to this second.