It has been a long time since I’ve read a book as peculiar as Jess Kidd’s Mr. Flood’s Last Resort—and I say that with a some consternation. The Mr. Flood of the title is an ancient, unwashed, ill-tempered Irish hoarder who, in his earlier life, was an antique dealer and taxidermist. He is now living in a rackety London mansion filled with rubbish, stacked magazines, paintings, curios, cats and poltergeists. He and his vast accumulation of junk have become objects of interest to social services who have tried to introduce a dumpster into the picture. A number of care workers have already been sent in by Flood’s son, Gabriel, but all—including “a geriatric whisperer brought in at great expense”—have departed in terror. Now, our first-person narrator, Maud Drennan, also Irish, is assigned to the job and sets about taming the old brute and cleaning up his lair.
In the process she goes on a bender of hyperbolic description, most especially of outlandishness, squalor, and filth. There is Flood himself: Tall and emaciated, he is “a bockety old maniac liable to rear up any moment, all clacking dentures and spittle-flecked gizzards.” He “wears several checked shirts, each with over-stuffed patch pockets, which give him the appearance of having multiple lopsided breasts. … On his feet he wears a pair of winkle-pickers laced with string. The toes alone are meter long. They curl at the end with all the coiled threat of a scorpion’s tail.” The house itself generates a riot of gruesome detail, as in a bathroom whose “paintwork is lurid sphagnum and the tiles are veined the blue-black-green of an overripe cheese. The linoleum… is patterned with brown lozenges like orderly blood stains.”
Maud is attended on and off by a rum bunch of saints whom only she can see: St. Dymphna (likes “bagpipe music, stories about herself, and dirty limericks”), St. George (clanking armor and drinker’s nose), St. Monica (thin-lipped and pensive), St. Raphael (winged and shimmeringly handsome,), St. Valentine (wall-eyed with bad teeth), and St. Rita of Cascia (silent and sympathetic with a stigma on her forehead). Most of them tend toward the caustic and censorious, and just why they are here is only one of the novel’s many mysteries.
A substantial cast of more corporeal characters tenant the story, each adorned in an elaborate plumage of description. Among them are Maud’s landlady, Renata, a 60-year-old, agoraphobic, one-time magician’s assistant; Lilian her neat-freak sister; and Biba Morel, Case Manager, cake gobbler and performer of “alchemic magic…matching geriatric hell-raisers with minimum-waged staff.” There are also a couple of perfidious imposters, a fox called Samuel Beckett, and a great many cats.
The plot is an antic affair producing questions galore: Did Mr. Flood kill his wife by pushing her down the stairs? Did the couple also have another child, a daughter called Marguerite? If so, what happened to her? And what’s the story on this other missing girl whose disappearance is recorded in an envelope of clippings? As it happens, Maud’s sister also went missing, having disappeared one day on a beach in Ireland many years ago. What happened to her? Clues to some of these puzzles pop up in cryptic notes and mutilated photographs.
A hectic air pervades the novel, and, for much of it, the plot skids about the place as though its true object were to find another grotesque scene upon which to lavish flamboyant description. Eventually, however, it gets down to brass tacks and Maud finds herself pursued by two men intent on murdering her. Even though it is not crystal clear why she must be killed, we are glad of it, as we finally have something concrete on the page. The pursuit gives rise to real suspense and a genuinely funny scene as Maud manages to elude the murderous pair by insinuating herself into a crowd of merrymakers on a coach tour.
All in all, this is an exhausting book, its manic description, anarchic flights of whimsy, and what might be called magic realism begin to wear the reader down. Or at least this reader: Kidd is a young writer, her style is a young person’s, and it may be that her readers must be pretty young too—and more open to chaos.