After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)
Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.
And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.
The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.
Who does John meet in the dwelling in the woods? A motley crew, to be sure. There is the owner, one Hester in late middle age who, as an actor lacking classical good looks, was seen as fit for character parts; then there’s Elijah, a preacher who has lost his faith and gained agoraphobia; chain-smoking Walker, quietly supercilious and John’s imagined rival in love; Eve, a talented pianist to whom John becomes attracted; the child-like amber-haired Clare, who welcomes John to the house; and finally there’s Clare’s older brother Alex who is fixated on a neighbouring reservoir and believes a flood is coming.
What is this group of half-dozen individuals doing in this woodland setting, what are their relationships to each other, and why does John allow himself to be drawn in despite not being who they think he is? To say much more of how those relationships pan out would be to give away too much, but that the weather plays a significant role is evident, leading one knows to a denouement when it finally breaks. Sarah Parry’s ability to make us feel that atmospheric pressure through momentary irritations, periods of languidness, moments of sensuality, beads of sweat upon exposed skin and conversations that change tack all the time is extraordinary and draws one on from page to page and chapter to chapter.
It is no spoiler to draw attention to what the author in her acknowledgements calls “the greatest of all books”. There are seven chapters and seven characters paralleling the days of creation. That many have Biblical names is not coincidental and hint at their roles — John the Baptist (“the voice of one crying in the wilderness”), Esther (a variant of Hester) the queen of Persia, the prophet Elijah, and Eve the first woman — and of course the Biblical flood is alluded to in the title. Perry also explicitly refers to the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ from The Exeter Book of Riddles which some see as indicating a woman torn between two partners (“Our fate is forked” runs the refrain in one translation). A notable reference to classical myth comes when Hester quotes lines from Racine’s Andromaque but mythical echoes, imbued with psychological nuances, are everywhere .
Don’t expect all mysteries to be solved, for this is an allusive not an explicit novel. The reader may go looking for clues in everything (the walls papered with pages from the Bible, words scored into tabletops, objects amongst a stranger’s belongings, creatures such as moths and crickets and seagulls and spiders) but many of these are polyvalent symbols one may come across in dreams, with significances possible of several interpretations. It is these which give the novel a feel of magical realism: in addition the heavy iteration of the four elements — the earth of the garden — the breathless, charged air — fire from the kitchen stove, the eerie lighting and final lightning flashes — and of course the water in the looming reservoir, at the seaside and the long anticipated cloudburst — all give the house, garden and environs a mystical as well as a Gothick resonance.
After Me Comes the Flood deserves the epithet ‘haunting’: its words are spells, its characters float through rooms, its descriptions pulse and hypnotise. An impressive debut, all told, and one I’m glad to have kept faith with.