Book Review

After Me Comes The Flood, by Sarah Perry (2014)

3.5/5 stars

This was incredibly difficult for me to rate and review. There was so much that I enjoyed about it, and a lot that left me cold and confused. A reading experience of two extremes.

After Me Comes The Flood opens on a Wednesday in the middle of a London heat wave. We are introduced to John Cole, a man whose life appears to be stuck in a kind of stasis between his bookshop that has few customers and his quiet flat. On this Wednesday, he decides to shut the shop early and take a spontaneous visit to his brother, who lives on the Norfolk coast.

His car breaks down on the journey, so he pulls over into a deserted country road. Waiting for the engine to cool down, he walks along this road through the woods and comes upon a grand house. Already dizzied by the overwhelming heat, he is left further confused when he is welcomed by the inhabitants of the house with familiarity. They all know his name, and appear to have been waiting for him.

As John tries to negotiate his way through this mysterious dwelling and the community housed within it, he learns of what brought this group together, and of a terror that plagues one member in particular. More importantly, though, he wonders whether he will ever find his way out of this situation, and what would happen if the group discovers that he is not as he appears either.

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Would Highclere Castle make the perfect location for an adaptation?

One of the most engaging aspects of this novel is Perry’s prose. It’s an absolute delight. It’s rich and visceral, but simultaneously slippery and enigmatic. That’s what makes the ‘otherworldly’ atmosphere of the novel so wholly immersive. Readers do not just ‘see’ John in this place; we experience it alongside him. Everything – the seclusion of the house; the broken sundial that tells “two times at once”; the cryptic graffiti on the furniture; even the heat-haze that overwhelms them all – makes it seem as though John has stepped into a parallel universe, but one just slightly out of place and out of time from reality. One of my first thoughts when John was greeted at the house was ‘when is this set?’ It’s never stated, and any markers are vague enough to elude a definitive answer. Yet the narrative is firmly structured and framed across the days of a single week. This disjuncture between time frames in the novel adds to the sense of dystopia, and enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere that characterises the narrative.

Even John’s first impressions of the house conflict: it seems “the most real and solid thing [he’d] ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat.” This reference to mirages, tricks, and illusions impresses upon us that in this novel’s world, nothing is quite stable; not even John’s senses can be trusted.

The allusions to Daphne du Maurier’s writing – specifically her novel, The Scapegoat – were very interesting. The concept of both novels is very similar – a man enters an unfamiliar dwelling and must negotiate the domestic relations he finds himself part of there. As a du Maurier fan – and knowing Perry shares that interest – I liked the echoes that resonated in spite of the two stories being very different in most ways. Perry, like du Maurier, expertly crafts unsettling atmospheres through subtle disturbances in ‘reality’, getting to the heart of what makes us feel secure, or scared, or upset.

The cast of characters form one of the most dysfunctional pseudo-families you are likely to come across in books. Hester and Elijah are cast in the parental roles within the group, with Alex, Eve, and Claire undertaking the role of the children. Walker is the charming if mischievous uncle figure. What brought them together, and the reason they seem to be expecting John, is revealed is what I thought was a very chilling (and incredibly effective) chapter cliff-hanger. The revelation doesn’t settle the narrative, but instead increases the tension and suspense as we watch John come to terms with it.

One character whose story really gripped me was Elijah’s, a former preacher who quite suddenly lost his faith, and consequently his purpose, his identity, his existence. I grew up in a religious community, and though my crisis of faith was not as momentous as Elijah’s, I was able to recognise a lot of his conflicts in my own experience. Yet again, Perry’s style beautifully captures concepts that one believes to be inexplicable.

“All my life, I’d lived by a set of rules as fixed and constant as the sun setting in the west. They made sense of everything in the past, and nothing in the future frightened me. It was a rock under my feet.

The rock under my feet turned out to be sand after all, and in the end the tide came in.”

The allusions to religion and faith are not contained to Elijah’s story. The novel’s framework of days in the week appears to give reference to the Creation story, and the otherworldliness of the house and gardens gives the impression of an Eden-like idyll. Meanwhile the threat sensed by one character is apocalyptic in scope. The beginning and the end of days contained in one house.

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While the slippery, enigmatic style worked for the most part – it certainly kept me intrigued throughout – I did feel as the way some story strands were dropped without reference and left unresolved quite frustrating. I was never expecting answers to everything: such a novel as After Me Comes The Flood wouldn’t suit neat bows and ribbons tying everything neatly together. It would lose the edge that makes it thrilling. However, there was one story strand that I thought deserved more prominence and resolution – although I won’t spoil which characters are concerned for future readers. Many readers probably prefer that it’s not resolved, but it was the one aspect that I thought would get explored more, and I was disappointed that it didn’t.

I also mentioned in my post a few weeks ago that I was struggling to care for the characters. Elijah excepted, this remained the case until the end. I simply couldn’t understand their motivations, their perspectives, and this affected my ability to connect with their progression throughout the novel.

While this hasn’t been one of my favourite books to read this year, it was certainly worth it because Perry’s prose is such a delight. I feel very fortunate to be a reader during her writing career, to experience her work as it is published.

If you’re looking for a read that is dark and ceaselessly enigmatic, After Me Comes The Flood is certainly the book for you.

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