Books

Sarah Perry
After Me Comes the Flood

Deep in a mysterious forest a stranger chances upon an isolated mansion inhabited by mysteriously childlike adults or children pretending to be adults. There’s a mysteriously lovely young woman who plays the piano, a mysterious lake, a death, a failed fête champêtre… Haven’t we read all this before somewhere? Yes – in Fournier’s classic Le Grand Meaulnes for a start. There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Magus, too, not to mention many other novels and films. However, this is the era of the homage. Old-fashioned originality is... well, passé. Sarah Perry’s tribute to this standard European fantasy is thoughtful, understated and compelling.

Perry avoids cliché partly by strong characterisation. Her stranger is almost comically bland, while each of the residents of the old house he stumbles across when his car breaks down is distinctive and interesting: Elijah, for instance, a former pastor who “wasted” his youth on God, waking up one day to find he wasn’t there; Alex, the delicately beautiful man-child who may or may not have “touched” a little boy at the beach; Hester, who is good but strikingly ugly, “as though she’d been put together from leftover pieces”.

Indeed, fragmentation is a leitmotif in the novel: everything about the house and its “politely mad” residents is redolent of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. The narrative is littered with shards, pieces, strips and fragments, evidence of abandonment, of a failure to arrive at wholeness. Perry held my interest, however, less with literary devices learnt in creative writing classes (she was Andrew Motion’s student) than with the theme of lopsided loves. Everyone in the book wants to matter to somebody else who matters to them. In our own way, we all do. And they fail – as many of us do. It’s not tragic, it’s just life.

The way the story almost imperceptibly becomes suffused with sexual feeling after an unsettlingly asexual beginning is masterful. In fact, the pacing of all the reader’s discoveries about the house and its inhabitants is flawless.

It is refreshing to read a novel that has telling, if unsensational, things to say about human relationships, recounted with restraint. It is mannered, as all fine fiction aware of its roots must be, but never overwrought in that strident, self-applauding way some English writers adopt, imagining they’re being amusing. It is not quite a masterpiece, this first novel, but Perry may well yet write one.  PP

Serpent’s Tail, 240pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood". Subscribe here.