I started reading this one last month when it wouldn’t stop raining, and a novel that started on the night in 1953 when floodwaters drowned half of Canvey Island seemed rather apt. It wasn’t just the arrival of summer, the Olympics or having to finish writing my book that delayed my completing it. I grew up in a seaside town only a few miles from Canvey, and this novel perfectly encapsulated what winter is like in a summer town. That’s not particularly a compliment. Indeed, I grew tired of the book’s ceaseless miserabilism long before the end.
Len is out dancing with his sister in law Vi when his wife Lily drowns, trapped at home, having sent son Martin to get help. The novel follows the ripples caused by her death through the decades, as Len and Vi seek increasingly more comfort in each other’s arms, and Martin forsakes his class and upbringing to go to university, based on a grief-stricken desire to pioneer ways to hold back the sea. It becomes Martin’s novel by the end, as he finds himself drawn back to Canvey for the first time since leaving as a teenager. This being exactly the kind of novel you’re expecting it to be, it’s all about unfulfilled lives, abandoned dreams and the plight of the working class, and when the author’s done with those, he throws in some more death for good measure.
I don’t have a problem with serious books. I don’t think novels necessarily need to have any humour. I do think they need to have a little more tonal variety than this novel, however. Even most funeral eulogies manage to raise a smile or two, even if they are smiles of appreciation rather than amusement. It all just seems terribly worthy, like the author has some sort of point to make with all this bleakness.
But I can’t see one. Despite all their foibles and contradictions, the characters never have more than a single dimension, and both they and the novel creep along at the same pace from first page to last. Skipping a decade between chapters doesn’t make a difference, because on either side of the divide the characters are still doing what they were doing years before, either making the same old mistakes or brand new ones.
I’m not left wondering where these characters will be a day, a month, a year or a decade after the last page, because I already know. Runcie has provided little scope to believe they will ever make the right decision, no reason to hope they will ever find any happiness. All that lies before them is more misery and then death.
When I started this blog I decided I wouldn’t write wholly negative reviews for books I didn’t like. The truth is that I didn’t hate this one, and Runcie’s dialogue and prose were never unbelievable or dull, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone to read on a cloudy day, and even less on a pleasant one.