The intriguing premise of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood is as follows: ‘What if you walked out of your life only to find another one was already waiting for you?’ Heralded ‘elegant, gently sinister and psychologically complex’, the novel holds instant appeal for fans of books like Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, and of authors such as Sarah Waters.
The protagonist of the piece is John Cole, a lonely man who decides to leave his life behind him and join his brother at his secluded house in rural Norfolk. Whilst driving away from the neglected bookshop which he owns in London, his car – rather predictably, one may think – breaks down, and he finds himself lost. Searching for help, he stumbles upon a grand house: ‘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’. John is soon welcomed with opened arms by the odd community of people within, who seem to have been expecting him all along: ‘I ought really to have been afraid of the strangeness and the dark and the insistent child, and those appalling meat hooks hanging from their chains, but instead it all seemed so absurd, and so like something in a novel, that I began to laugh’.
Throughout, Perry uses two differing voices – the first person perspective of John, who is writing an account of his time in his house, and an omniscient third person narrative. John’s voice drawns one in from the outset: ‘I’m writing this in a stranger’s room on a broken chair at an old school desk. The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still’. He goes on to say, ‘I wish I could use some other voice to write this story down. I wish I could take all the books that I’ve loved best and borrow better words than these, but I’ve got to make do with an empty notebook and a man who never had a tale to tell and doesn’t know how to begin except for the beginning’.
Perry manages to set the oppressive tone of the book almost as soon as it begins: ‘I’ve been listening for footsteps on the stairs or voices in the garden, but there’s only the sound of a household keeping quiet. They gave me too much drink – there’s a kind of buzzing in my ears and if I close my eyes they sting’. On the whole, After Me Came the Flood is very well written, and the descriptions which Perry gives of her characters are particularly striking. Hester, for example, the woman who appears to be in charge of the house, ‘seemed poorly assembled, as though she’d been put together from leftover pieces – her eyes set under a deeply lined forehead, her nose crooked like a child’s drawing of a witch, her skin thick and coarse’.
After Me Came the Flood becomes unsettling rather quickly, and at times it takes quite unexpected turns. A real sense of place is built, and the first half of the multi-layered novel is very engrossing indeed. At around this point, however, the religious elements which have previously been touched upon serve only to saturate the entire plot, and cause the whole to become rather plodding in its pace. The suspense is lost altogether, and it never really picks up again. The denouement is also rather predictable. All of these elements sadly add an unfortunate stain to what would otherwise be an intriguing and well driven novel.