The Night Of The Flood, our final book club selection for 2020, turned out to be a damp squib unfortunately.
Zoë Somerville’s debut novel takes as its dramatic centrepiece a flood in January 1953 that brought havoc to the coastal towns along the east coast of England. More than 300 people died and farmland was contaminated for years when sea defences were breached by a wall of tidal water. Somerville handles this catastrophic event extremely well, capturing the speed and verocity of the rising waters and the effects on the people of one coastal town.
If the rest of the novel had been as skilfully written I’d have enjoyed it far more. But it felt very much like a novel of two distinct halves that didn’t gel together as seamlessly as they should.
The plot is based on that old favourite: the love triangle played out across divisions of social class and nationality. So we have Verity Frost, a farmer’s daughter cramming for exams that will secure her a much-cherished place at Oxford university. She’s torn between loyalty to her father who’s taken to drink after the death of his wife and her brother Peter desperately trying to keep the farm running.
And then there’s her childhood friend Arthur who has recently returned from his National Service. He wants more than friendship. But Verity has her head turned by Jack, a charismatic American pilot based at a nearby camp. His wild nature offers the adventure Verity craves. As Arthur’s jealousy rises, and his suspicions deepen about the true nature of the American’s activities, so the tension escalates, culminating in the night of the storm.
Wrapped into this are some themes around suppressed homosexuality and the development of nuclear weapons at a time of heightened international tension between the west and Russia.
Those themes lifted what could otherwise have been a fairly so-so plot. But they were not enough to counter my reservations about the novel.
Chief of which was the fact I just didn’t care about any of the characters. Verity was downright irritating and Jack too obviously an egotist yet not sinister enough to warrant Arthur’s obsessional determination to expose him. As for Arthur, he begins as a nice guy who begins exhibiting some violent tendencies that felt out of character.
It takes a long time, and many cycles of the ‘will they/won’t they’ question about Jack and Verity before we get to the night of the flood. The intention was clearly to show a slow ratcheting up of the tension that is metaphorically breached by the storm. I needed to be more invested in the characters however to appreciate this slow burn approach.
It’s a shame because on the evidence of what I’ll call the flood section, Zoë Somerville can certainly deliver great dramatic scenes. Her writing became markedly tighter, less bogged down in mundane similies and far more more evocative of atmosphere. Those scenes truly have a very satisfying page turning quality.
It will be interesting to see what Somerville does next.
The Night Of The Flood by Zoë Somerville: EndNotes
Published by Head of Zeus in the UK in 2020, The Night Of The Flood is the debut novel of Zoë Somerville. She is a native of Norfolk, a teacher of English who has lived in Japan, France and Washington. She is now back in the UK, living in Bath. The flood that features in the novel did occur – on the night of January 31 – becoming the worst peacetime disaster to strike East Anglia. More details can be found here.