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Canvey Island by James Runcie


How Water Marks

The news brings horrifying reports of floods in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, New Orleans and many other places. We are hit with images of people standing on top of their homes waiting for rescue while their belongings are swept away. In need of food, shelter and safety these people become refugees at the mercy of others. But what happens next? What happens to the survivors whose lives have been torn apart by this act of nature? James Runcieís third novel Canvey Island (2006, The Other Press, NY) explores the aftermath of such a tragic event focusing on the struggles of one family over a forty-year time span in postwar England. It shows how a sound bite on the public's radar compares to the lifelong effect a tragedy evokes in the lives of the victims. It's also a book about uncommunicated truths. Secrets, both personal and political were handled differently in the '50s. Find out how. Runcieís spare lyric style of writing makes this simple story a quiet thunderstorm on your weather map. Prepare to open the flood gates.


April 20, 2009
— This is the not-so-simple story of a boy growing up without his mother. James Runcie pulls together characters from postwar England at a time where people, places and ideas are rapidly changing. Each character takes a turn as narrator, and we learn the smallest details from different perspectives. We learn the way they think. We begin to feel like a part of the family. Canvey is a very real and a very haunting story. It's a book about life in all its drama. The characters move through youth, middle age and old age. As you read you dip into their pockets of joy, despair, misunderstanding, discovery and above all, love.

James Runcie is an award winning filmmaker and theater director, which explains why Canvey Island, his third novel, is effused with subtle cinematic detail. Take One: the Canvey Island Flood of 1953óa real-life event that tragically strikes the lives of 58 Canvey Islanders. The story begins with nine year-old Martin who after being tucked in his bed for the night finds himself struggling for his life and that of his mother's when the flood hits his home. James Runcie is not over-stated in his writing. This book is neither a thriller, nor is it a particular page-turner. The climax happens at the start of the book and we get to witness the aftermath the rest of the way in delicate emotional prose instead of dramatically charged scenes.

I imagined the sea expanding and contracting as I breathed, a giant presence from which I could never escape. This was what it was like to live in the shadow of the ocean. It is the same as the shadow of loss. It would never rest.

Seven characters narrate through forty years of realistic accounts of their lives; their feelings of guilt, love, loneliness and loss. Martin is deeply affected by the loss of his mother on the night of the flood. He can never quite forgive his father and aunt, who were out dancing together on the night of her death. Why would his father not be at home?

The character of Aunt Violet interests me the most. Her husband, George returns from the war tragically altered and unable to communicate. You get the impression that Aunt Violet is one of the "stiff upper lip" generation. She deals with her husband in a very matter-of-fact kind of way, and only in a few brief times do we get to see her softer side, when she reminisces about the past and quickly snaps out of it. She behaves strictly with Martin, but we later learn her side of the story and realize that she behaves in this manner because she thinks it best for Martin. Violet is a strong character with her own personal tragedy, which she bears with awkward grace and unwavering spirit. But what was she silent about?

Martinís character is aptly "watery", his obsession: with the sea and with the loss of his mother. It leaves him indecisive and wanting. It shapes his career choice. The two women whom he loves at different periods of his life are different in some respects, but similar in others: Both are passionate and creative, and both live within the world better than Martin is able to. Martinís father, Len, and Uncle George convey the shift of time during this novel, as we witness both characters deteriorate with age. Lenís story makes me the saddest. He survives the war only to loose his wife in the flood. His son is alienated from him, and his son's subsequent visits home after Martin has left the nestóeducated and married, seem to be made out of duty alone. Does he suspect? When Len finally moves into a nursing care home he is shocked by how his body fails him. He makes forlorn jokes about the others in the care home. He succors his son who struggles with his own difficulties.

I know the fear of death is always with us but sometimes it can disappear for days. You don't think about it when your wife is coming to bed and she takes off her nightgown and you're excited by her nakedness even if you have been married a long time. You don't think about it when your child gives you a smile that you know is meant only for you or when the sea is dead calm and you're out fishing with no one to trouble you. You don't think about death, of course you don't, it never crosses your mind, but then back it comes, far too soon, telling you not to be so cocky, don't think this is going to last, mate, this is all the happiness you're going to get and you should be grateful I didn't come before.

This would all seem to be extremely tragic, but Runcie laces the book with touching and even funny moments which bring a warmth and human element to each character so that you believe that grief can be born and still leave you with room to love, room to laugh, and room to carry on. A wonderful book, full of beautifully written paragraphs.

James Runcie is the son of the Archbishop of Cantebury. He has produced programs for the BBC and more recently finished a documentary entitled J.K. Rowling: A Day In The Life, for ITV. This month (April) sees the UK release of his fourth book, East Fortune (Bloomsbury 2009) set in Scotland 2005.

Associated links: James Runcie's Website



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