Some books are rather tricky to read and therefore tricky to write about. Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was the first book I read when I returned from America and I have to say at first I thought was the worst possible choice of book to read whilst in the throes of jetlag. Now Sarah, on the off chance you have popped by, don’t fret because once I realised that it wasn’t the jet lag (or that it was me being a bit thick) and that you cleverly, and trickily, wanted me to feel rather thrown and confused initially. Yet I soon got enveloped in a wonderful and often tricky (have I mentioned the tricky factor yet or mentioned the word tricky so many times its gone weird) dark and unsettling gothic world somewhere on the Norfolk coast.
If you decided, after being sick to death of a seemingly never ending heat wave in London, that you would go and take a trip to visit a family member before breaking down in a wood and then finding a house where a bunch of strangers are waiting for you to turn up, you might think something really weird was going on. This is the case for John Cole, a bookseller who, after a thirty five day drought of rain and indeed customers in his bookshop, finds himself in this very predicament. Why would people that he has never met be waiting for him? Is there more to it than merely just some strange coincidence?
John is naturally wondering just what the funk is going on, feeling both saved and yet, quite naturally, completely disorientated and confused. We too as the reader are instantly thrown into a world where we feel that the rug has been pulled from under us and can’t work it out either. I have to admit I was feeling rather confused and cross at first, yet Sarah’s wonderful writing and the mystery of what was going on with this strange cast of characters and why they new John kept me reading – then the penny dropped. It wasn’t the book that was confusing, John was confused and bothered and through his narrative so was I. Clever. Tricky. A risk. Yet one that pays off if you let it just take over you and go with it.
‘I know. And I don’t know which would be worst. Isn’t it odd,’ she said, smiling: ‘You turned up and I never for a minute thought it might be you, though even as strangers go, you’re fairly strange.’ Much later John was to remember that phrase, and wonder why it had felt so like an unexpected touch on the arm. Pressing her hands against the dip in her spine and turning her face to the sun she said, ‘Let’s not talk about it anymore.’ Then she ran to peer at the shadow on the broken sundial, swore beneath her breath, and vanished into the cool dark house. Clare stood, examining a bitten-down thumbnail, while the sound of a piano played in intricate swift patterns reached them across the lawn.
‘How did she know the time,’ said John, when the sundial’s broken?’
I mentioned that it is the intrigue that carries you through the initial confusion. There is of course the mystery of how on earth these characters know, or think they know, John. There is also the question of why he allows them to go on thinking this and what will happen should they realise he might not be who they think, if he isn’t who they think. There is also the mystery of the characters that have come together in this crumbling old mansion, which is often a character in its own right. We have head of the house, the unnervingly ugly yet motherly Hester who is clearly in charge; a former preacher named Elijah who has pages from the bible all over his walls; the beautiful yet cold Eve; the childlike (to the point of dim) Claire and her brother Alex who everyone is concerned about and a man named Walker, who stays aloof. Why have this group of strangers come together when they have no family ties, how do they know each other, what ties them together? It gets stranger and more mysterious as it goes on. Oh and there is the question of what on earth Eadwacer is? I will say no more because one of the wonders of this book is how it unwinds and unravels slowly but surely revealing all.
If I can’t say much more about the plot, what else can I say about the book? Well, Perry’s writing is rather wonderful. It takes a very accomplished author to write a book that is so strange, other and confusing at times you almost throw the book across the room, almost, never quite. The strangeness and confusion give it a rather beguiling nature which, along with the aforementioned characters and mystery, carries you on through. There is also the wonderful way in which Sarah Perry plays with words, often flipping them on their own meaning, how strange can a stranger be; can a stranger get stranger and stranger for example. There is a love of words and what they can do which shines through in the text which gives a playful nature to the book and can make an oppressive moment seem like a funny one and vice versa.
The gull padded scowling towards him and screamed again. The sound startled the pair inside the glasshouse – another of the windows flew open and a small white pebble was flung out. It startled the gull, which gave a weary thrust of its wings, shot John and aggrieved glare, and wheeled away towards the reservoir where Alex and Clare lay unmoving on the bright grass of the embankment, It found a rising current of hot air, and rode it out of sight.
‘Do you remember being a child and drawing birds so they made the letter M?’ said Eve, watching it go and bringing her tilted head against Walker’s shoulder. ‘And every house had a chimney, and the sky was a blue stripe with nothing between it and the green earth.’
There is also a wonderful duality to the novel which I really enjoyed. After Me Comes The Flood feels like it is set in the past, with its almost Victorian gothic atmosphere, and yet could easily be set in the future when global warming is rife. The book also has both a sense of nostalgic innocence and a knowing darkness. Sometimes is it maddeningly mysterious, other times thrillingly so. There is also a real sadness etched within its pages, yet it is also very funny, sometimes quite darkly and inappropriately so.
After Me Comes The Flood is a book that I would call brilliantly confusing and compelling. Oh and of course tricky, both in it playing joyful and dark tricks with its reader, though now I have used that word so much it does indeed seem wrong so maybe quirky is better. It is also incredibly original, whilst having nods and winks to literature from the past. It is a book which is both maddeningly and thrillingly strange and will require you to stop trying to rationalise everything and just go with it. Some people might be put off by this and that is their loss, I interestingly wanted to start it all over again when I had finished and think it could be one of those books you read every few years and get something completely different from. It is a fantastic example of a modern gothic novel and I am very excited about what Sarah might just do next, though I guess I should already be expecting something quite unexpected, which is very exciting.
Who else has read After Me Comes The Flood and what did you make of it? Which books have you read that have really thrown you off kilter initially before becoming brilliant and quirky tales you will never forget and even go back to?