Outside, as he watched her walk ahead of him on the scorched sharp grass, John felt again the change of air, as though there’d been a disruption overnight. The stillness now wasn’t like the calm before a storm, which would surely be a gathered sort of stillness, like a muscle bunched before a blow: this was complete inertia, and more unsettling than a lightning strike.
It is a stiflingly hot summer. It hasn’t rained in months and the birds are dying of thirst in the gutters of London. John decides he doesn’t want to work. He closes up his bookshop, gets in his car, and heads towards his brother’s house by the sea. But between the heat and the impromptu nature of the journey he loses his way. His car overheats and when he gets out he finds himself walking out of a forest and into a house where strangely the six occupants have been waiting for him. Your things are in your room, they say. We’re so glad you’re finally here.
This is a strange, claustrophobic little novel. Spanning just a week, John feels himself the outsider among this household of oddballs, but he just can’t tear himself away from the mysteries he finds there. What are their stories and, given he was there purely by chance, why were they waiting for him to arrive? I can’t tell you too much about the events that unfold without ruining the thread of curiosity that runs through the novel. And it really is a curious little beast.
Then I asked her why she went on playing with aching arms and she said, “It’s because everything’s such a muddle, and then I come here, and it never fails me. Look,” – she played a scale so swiftly I couldn’t really see where her fingers were falling – “it’s the same, every time, and your ears strain for it, and then the end you long for comes.” With her thumb she played the final note again, and I knew what she meant.
I said, “I can only make sense of things when they’re written down. Sometimes, when I feel confused and in the dark, I think if only I looked hard enough I’d see words in their proper order, and I’d understand everything better.”
I found the pace of the story to be a little strange. In fact, I found the whole thing to be a little strange. But Perry weaves such a slow-burn tale of dread and longing I had to keep reading. The summer drags on, slow and dreamlike, and tensions rise as they wait for the weather to break. Suddenly John, a man whose whole life has revolved around books, who can only make sense of the world when it is distilled into words on the page, has a story to tell. He wishes there was someone else, some other voice he could tell it in. Don’t we all wish that sometimes? But he is our observer and through his eyes we try to fathom the depths of the characters around him, realising that they are ultimately unknowable. In fact, so is John himself. Humans are complicated, difficult and various. At once caring and careless. They cannot be condensed into adjectives and adverbs; cause and consequence. Likewise with this novel. It’s like a cat, both simple and capricious; exceedingly difficult to know, impossible to describe. But we will always try to do so, won’t we? More fool us.
Incidentally, in writing this post I discovered the phrase apres moi le deluge for the first time. I also discovered that au coeur de l’été means the height, literally the heart, of summer. Isn’t it a wonderful phrase? I imagine the season as an animal, the air dense and warm as blood, short temper betrayed by the occasional flick of a tail.
After Me Comes the Flood, Sarah Perry: three and a half stars.
Read it when: you’re waiting for a break in the weather, or whatever ails you.