Review: The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville (2020)

The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville

Blurb:

An atmospheric literary thriller set in north Norfolk in the shadow of the Cold War, in which a love triangle turns murderous.

Her heart beat hard. There was a crazed beauty to the storm. It was almost miraculous, the way it took away the mess of life, sweeping all in its path…

No-one could have foreseen the changes the summer of 1952 would bring. Cramming for her final exams on her family’s farm on the Norfolk coast, Verity Frost feels trapped between past and present: the devotion of her childhood friend Arthur, just returned from National Service, and her strange new desire to escape.

When Verity meets Jack, a charismatic American pilot, he seems to offer the glamour and adventure she so craves, and Arthur becomes determined to uncover the dirt beneath his rival’s glossy sheen.

As summer turns to winter, a devastating storm hits the coast, flooding the land and altering everything in its path. In this new, watery landscape, Verity’s tangled web of secrets, lies and passion will bring about a crime that will change all their lives forever.

Review:

The Night of the Flood is another book that caught my eye amid the many novels published last month. I am so grateful to the author for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

There is a feeling that comes over me when I start a book and I know from the opening pages that it is going to be brilliant. It is a sort of tingling, gleeful anticipation. I love that feeling of beautiful possibility and rewards to come, and my spidey senses were definitely activated by the start of this novel. The Night of the Flood fully delivered on that promise.

The word “atmospheric” is tossed around with casual abandon to describe books, but here it is singularly appropriate, with all the shades of nuance of weather, pressure, tension, and total immersion that it contains. The double jeopardy of the approaching flood, which is counted down at the start of chapters, and the menace of the Cold War in all its mysterious, suspicious secrecy, creates a fog-like blanket of tension overlying the more personal dramas that play out.

The prose is confident, muscular, and full of texture. It is so evocative of the Norfolk landscape in all its salty, marshy viscosity. My special kind of literary synaesthesia, in which I imagine that prose has a taste, was out in force: this is definitely an umami book, savoury and meaty and without any hint of sugary sweetness. (Sorry if I’ve lost you with “umami prose”!)

The characters are deeply complex, and the level of psychological and emotional richness in this story is astounding. The five young people whose lives are intertwined are each crucial to the intersecting themes of the story, and each one brings yet another layer to the narrative. The crackle of attraction that sparks between different characters at different times is such a realistic depiction of sexual energy at that age (I vaguely seem to remember!) and it is a bold, insightful move away from the simplicity of a mutual attraction between two characters or a clichéd “love triangle.”

Verity, Peter and Arthur are afforded a close third person point of view, sometimes shifting between them within chapters, and this perspective allows for some startling insights into their thoughts. I found my sympathies ebbing and flowing between them, sometimes shocked by their thoughts, sometimes aching for their separate predicaments. Jack, the American pilot, stands outside this close perspective, though he is no less developed as a character. The author’s refusal to let us into his head aligns us cleverly with the three other character, much of whose energy is spent trying to figure Jack out.

The final character of the five is Muriel. I am probably going to wax lyrical here, because for me, Muriel is perhaps the most startlingly brilliant aspect of this novel. The only one among the young people whose (deliberately brief) chapters contain a sense of joy, of contentment, of existing in harmony with her surroundings, Muriel, the fisherman’s daughter, is both an anchor and a catalyst, a kind of nexus around which the others orbit without realising it. Her connection to the landscape, and to the sea in particular, seems elemental and powerful; even the flood is something she can understand and accept, and also subtly profit from. I flippantly referred to her in my head as the Thetis of Norfolk – there really is something goddess-like about her, for all her down-to-earth pragmatism. I actually went back and read her sections again upon finishing the novel, revelling in their lyrical beauty and strange power.

There is so much more I could say about this book. It is constructed of brilliantly complex, subversive layers, culminating in an almost unbearably dramatic climax on the night of the flood itself. Like Muriel, I will be picking over the rich leftovers of this story for a long time to come. The Night of the Flood is a staggering achievement, and I hope many of you are tempted to read it for yourselves. I’m certainly going to be reading it again.

The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville is published by Head of Zeus, and is available to purchase here.

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