Reviewed by Victoria Best
John Cole is an antiquarian bookseller who has grown tired of his life and tired of his self. One long, hot summer, towards the end of a debilitating heatwave, he stumbles into his bookshop that fits him ‘like a snail’s shell’ and falls asleep in the old leather chair. When he wakes later, his perceptions are strange and disturbing: ‘The clock in the corner sounded ill-tempered and slow, and the carpet was full of unfamiliar birds opening their beaks at me.’ He is on the verge of a complete breakdown and decides to drive towards the Norfolk coast, where his brother lives. Unsure what to do, his survival instinct tells him not to remain alone.
But John never reaches his brother. In the midst of a forest, his car breaks down, and in the hunt for civilization and water, he stumbles across a grand old house entering the stage of disrepair. ‘It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat.’ The impression of dream-like ambiguity only intensifies when he hears his own name being called. From the house emerges a young girl, amber-haired and laughing. She greets him, tells him she has been waiting for him, and insists he accompany her indoors. Most astonishing of all, she appears to know his name. Confused and suffering still from his incipient breakdown, John accepts what is happening to him and ends up at the kitchen table, drinking tea. He is torn between the familiarity of events and their utter uncanniness, the atmosphere skilfully evoked by Sarah Perry’s brilliant and teasing description:
The cat I’d seen outside appeared suddenly on the table in front of me, moving its tail like a hypnotist’s watch, and I sat following its swing. The table was scored with knife-cuts and scorched with hot pans, and someone had scratched into the wood the words NOT THIS TIME.
Before long, John meets the members of this peculiar household. At their head is the powerful matriarch, Hester, who uses her ugliness as a form of command: ‘everything about her seemed poorly assembled, as though she’d been put together from leftover pieces’; the shy, bearded Elijah, a former preacher haunted by his lost faith; hostile and cynical Walker, always wreathed in cigarette smoke; the dryad-like siblings, Claire and Alex and beautiful, boyish Eve whose piano-playing enchants John. Their kindness and the strange compulsion provoked by their ready welcome prevent John from admitting the confusion over his identity. The almost supernatural force of the mistake gives him the impression that he is stepping into some kind of destiny. And in any case, he has nowhere else to go and nothing that he really wants to be. The reader understands that he is in no fit state to make a decision, and that the energy of unfolding events carries him swiftly along.
This is a story steeped in the uncanny that nevertheless reveals – eventually – the plausible truth underlying bizarre appearances. John finds out that he has come to a community of outsiders, brought together in a potentially dangerous social experiment. He learns that there is already some kind of serpent in this unusual Eden in the form of poison pen letters arriving for the exuberantly unstable Alex. John attempts to be an innocent bystander, but before long he has somehow become a catalyst, though whether he will bring comfort or chaos seems to hang in the balance. This is, I think, the implication of the title, translated from its original French: après moi, le déluge. Its meaning varies from the idea that disaster will inevitably follow in a man’s wake, to the notion that the devil may care, that the agent provocateur will be indifferent to the trouble he causes. John is far from indifferent; before long he begins to care for the unusual household, and for Eve in particular with whom he falls into an unreciprocated tenderness. But at the same time, he has no real business to be where he is, and the prospect of escape is not only a safeguard, it will become a necessity. Of the events John will be forced to witness, which will be his doing, and what will the consequences be?
This is the most unusual and beautifully written psychological thriller I have read, though I use the term ‘thriller’ loosely, as the narrative is at most a second cousin to the normal genre. But the atmosphere of this novel is steeped in menace and uncertainty, and Sarah Perry does a brilliant job of infusing every event and encounter with ambiguity – it is hard to know whether what happens is accident or intention, whether the characters are sane or crazy. This is also a deeply literary novel; the writing is stunning at all times; you can pick out just any sentence you like and it will resonate and beguile. But it is also very, very dark and claustrophobic in a way that remains uncompromised to the end. The absence of relief and humour make for a very coherent novel, but one that can at times feel slightly sterile, the way all perfectly beautiful things do. Still, this is undoubtedly the work of a major writing talent, and it will be very intriguing to see what she writes next.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Sarah Perry wrote an article for issue one of Shiny New Books about the genesis of her novel. Read that here.
Sarah Perry, After Me Comes The Flood (Serpent’s Tail, June 2014) 978-1846689451, 240 pages, paperback original.