Sarah Perry’s The After Me Comes the Flood is a lyrical dreamlike debut. An exercise in atmosphere and misdirection, it is short on incident yet mesmerizingly compelling. Nothing is ever quite as it seems and a sense of the uncanny hovers over events without ever becoming concrete. That is the source of the novel’s greatest strength and greatest frustrations.
John Cole is an awkward, mild mannered man. He is a bookstore owner like his father before him. He even has the same chair his father sat in behind the register. John is well suited to this life. There are hardly ever any customers and he is left largely to himself. In the middle of a heat wave, however, he takes it into his head to go and visit his brother. Closing the bookstore, he abandons London and sets out for cooler climes. Along the way, his car breaks down and he is forced to take shelter in a dilapidated old house. The residents there are a curious group. There are the siblings Alex and Claire, friendly but strangely childlike; Eve a beautiful piano player; Elijah, a former preacher with a store of understanding but no faith; Walker, a smoker and a drinker with hostile, watching eyes; and finally their hostess, Hester, controlling and plain. They greet John Cole by name. They have been expecting him.
Suffering from heatstroke and his own reticence, he cannot at first bring himself to correct their mistake. He cannot be the John Cole they were expecting. John finds himself drawn into their hazy world. He feels oddly at peace among them, and yet there are secrets all around, puzzles he cannot answer. Something binds these disparate people together, and the longer he stays; the more John feels bound himself.
After Me Comes the Flood has a number of familiar elements—the isolated setting, the old, dilapidated house, the mysterious set of characters. These are all common tropes. Sarah Perry does not bring any new elements, but rather imbues them with symbolic, atmospheric, and psychological weight. Perry admits that she was raised in a highly religious household “immersed in classic literature, Victorian hymns and the King James Bible.” It is easy, perhaps too easy, to see the effect this had on her novel. Any Biblical allusions are just one of many textures.
Every incident is imbued with a sense of history, of meaning and allusion. It is a simple story but there are layers of symbols in every incident. This creates an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere. Even as the mysteries of the plot are revealed and the characters’ relationships reach their conclusion, there is an underlying sense of the unknowable. It is a ghost story without ghosts, unless you chose there to be. It works on both levels. There are too many symbols, too many meanings. Perry explicitly states that this is the point. You don’t have to know what everything means; you just have to know it has meaning. There is power in that, although some readers might be more annoyed than intrigued. The After Me Comes the Flood was a psychological and atmospheric triumph, and personally I look forward to her next novel.
After Me Comes the Flood can be found here on Amazon.
Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review
I was already curious about this novel, and your review has definitely piqued my interest! I’m often disappointed by the expectedness of ghosts stories, so a “ghost story without ghosts” sounds promising.
It’s long on atmosphere and character, but short on plot. Personally I prefer that to the alternative. It’s definitely a memorable debut. I’d be curious to see what you’d make of it.