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About the Author
James Runcie is a Fellow of the Royals Society of Literature and the author of eleven novels which have been translated all over the world. Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death, the first in 'The Grantchester Mysteries' series, was published in 2012, soon followed by Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night, Sidney Chambers and The Problem of Evil, Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins, Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation and Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love. In October 2014, ITV/PBS launched Grantchester, a prime-time series starring James Norton as Sidney Chambers, with the second season airing in March 2016, and a third in the autumn of 2017. The fourth series will air in early 2019. In May 2016, James Runcie became Commissioning Editor for Arts at BBC Radio 4. He lives in London and Scotland. His latest novel is The Road to Grantchester.
Read an Excerpt
By JAMES RUNCIE
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Chapter One January 31, 1953
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 for 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.
I should have known. I'm a fisherman. All my life I could read the sky.
I'd already decided that it would have been nasty to fish on, what with the tide rising on the full moon and a long fetch expected; but it was hard to imagine what followed. In any case everyone was in a state because of the dance. Lily was anxious and wanted to look after our boy; her sister was fossicking through her clothes wondering which dress to wear; and I was convinced we were going to be late for the bus. By the time the storm reached us we didn't have a prayer.
I don't see why I should feel guilty. My sister told me that it was all right to go to the dance without her. It wasn't as if there was going to be any hanky-panky with Len and she was never much of a party girl anyway. The little boy provided a perfect excuse to stay at home. She always said she didn't like leaving Martin alone on a Saturday night.
"Come on, girl," I said, making a bit of an effort, "have a drink and a dance."
"It's all right, Vi. I've got my knitting and the wireless."
"You need a bit of a treat, you do."
Len came into the room, took one look at his wife and decided that there was no point trying to persuade her. "Have you seen my cufflinks?" he said.
He liked to put them in when his shirt was laid out flat so that he didn't have to fiddle about with one hand later. But even then he kept getting them the wrong way round. He could be all thumbs, that man, which was strange given how well he could dance.
"You sure you don't mind?" I asked.
"You know what I'm like," said Lily. "I'd rather stay at home. Is George ready?"
"He's happy enough," I said. "And I've made sure he's got a blanket."
I liked to see to my husband first so that I was free to concentrate on myself afterwards. I couldn't abide his fussing.
It was a relief when I found out that it was going to be just Len and me doing the dancing. Now Lily wasn't coming I wouldn't have to worry about getting another partner. George could sit and watch. It calmed him down, I think. It was about the only thing that did in his condition.
Afterwards people did ask if we had ever thought of staying back with Lily and the boy, but how were we to know? I'd always liked dancing and Len and I were natural partners. We waltzed with an easy sway, always moving, always light. When he led, I never had to look at my feet or worry about the steps because he gave me such confidence.
Going to the ballroom was our one chance of a bit of glamour, an escape from the cold of winter and all our anxieties about money and whether George would ever get better. I let Len take me in his arms and we floated away from everything that troubled us. Dancing can make you forget anything you like if you let it get to work. You're moving faster than the world and nothing can touch you: not war, not storm, not even death. Nothing can harm you if you keep dancing.
At least that's what I thought.
I should have said. I saw the leak in the ceiling but I knew Mum would worry if I told her. She was washing up the tea things and humming along to the wireless in the kitchen and I didn't want anything to ruin bedtime.
It was the best part of the day, the time I had my mother all to myself, when she read me a story and smiled and laughed and sang me a song. And so when I knelt at the foot of the bed, I prayed she would not notice the ceiling. I even thought that if I looked away for long enough the leak would disappear.
"What shall it be?" Mum asked when she came into the room, picking me up for a swing in her arms. "Oh, what shall it be?" She had taken off her apron and was wearing a red cardigan, as if she had dressed up especially for me.
I tried to imagine which would be the longest song to keep her. I wanted to be snug and warm with the rain outside and my mother beside me. I wanted to fall asleep to the sound of her voice.
Tom, he was a piper's son, He learned to play when he was young, But all the tunes that he could play Was "Over the hills and far away" Over the hills and a great way off The wind shall blow my top-knot off.
She sat down on the bed and stroked my hair. "Close your eyes," she said to me, "close your eyes, my darling. Sweet dreams are coming."
Then she kissed me on the forehead. I kept my eyes shut and felt the weight of the bed change as she rose away from me. I could hear the sound of her heels, two steps softly on the rug by the bed, and then four louder ones on the linoleum to the door. I half-opened my eyes so I could see her turn for a last look before she switched out the light. Then she gave me a little wave. I think it was her secret to keep me safe.
Perhaps if I hadn't looked then the storm wouldn't have come and we would still have been a family. Perhaps it was my fault for peeping.
Mum left the door ajar so there was still some light from the hall. She even turned the wireless down but I could hear her humming. Then I was glad I hadn't told her about the water in the ceiling. Everything changed when she was afraid.
I listened to the rain on the roof as the wind began to pick up.
When I woke up the light in the hall had gone out. Mum never turned it off because I was afraid of the dark and so I knew something must be wrong.
I tried to find my torch and put my hand down into water. At first I thought the hot-water bottle had burst or that I had wet the bed but it was too cold and there was too much of it. The floor was shining and the sea was coming in from the hall. I could hear waves outside, close against the walls and window.
I reached for my dressing gown and stood on the bed to get dressed. I had to do it one-handed because I didn't want to let go of the torch. The light made patterns on the walls, moving all the time as I tried to put on the dressing gown. Then I got down into the water and felt for my slippers. Dad never liked me coming through without them and I didn't want to make him angry.
I pointed the torch at the bedroom door and saw that it was open, blown back on its hinges. I began to wade, picking my feet up but trying to keep my slippers on. The water was almost up to my knees. I knew I had to find my parents and not be scared. Perhaps they had already left and forgotten about me. I couldn't think where I'd go, perhaps Uncle George and Auntie Vi's, but they lived miles away and we always went there by car so I didn't know how I could walk.
Then I saw Mum, dressed in her nighty, standing in the middle of the living room and staring at the water.
I shone the torch into her face. "Mum," I said. "Wake up."
She didn't seem to know who I was.
"Where's Dad?" I said.
She began to take out her curlers and let them fall into the water.
"Dancing," she said.
I could hear the storm against the front door. "We have to go, Mummy. We have to get out."
She looked up at the ceiling. "Should we go up there?"
"No, Mummy ... the window at the back. In the kitchen."
"You must," I said, tugging at her arm. "We have to get out."
I pulled her towards the window and tried to push it up but it was stuck.
"Len always meant to do something about that."
"What are we going to do?" I said.
Mum struck at the window with the side of her arm but hit the wooden frame. "Oh, heck ... don't shine the torch at me, Martin ... I need it here."
She hit the glass with her forehead. It cracked and fell away from the center. Then she used her elbow to push away at the edges, pulling out the bits that stuck with her fingers.
She stepped back and hit the central frame with her shoulder. The wood cracked. Mum pushed the crosspiece away so that there was enough room for us to get out. She put out her leg first, bent down and lowered herself into the water below.
"O Mary, Mother of God," she said.
Outside everything was louder. There was wind and flood and rain; bells ringing, gates banging, police whistles, people screaming.
Mum held out her arm. "Come on." Blood from her forehead was trickling down into her eyes.
She had always promised that nothing bad would ever happen. "Make it go away," I said.
"It's all right, Martin. Shine the torch down here into the water. Get your foot out."
"I'm frightened," I said.
"It's only the darkness. It'll be all right."
"I don't want to do this."
"You must, son." She held out her hand and helped me out of the window. "Hold on and don't let go. The water's cold but it's not deep."
I jumped down and the flood was up to my knees. I felt bits of wood bang into my leg. Mum took my right hand in her left and used the other to clasp to the side of the house, pushing against it for support. I could hear the creak of the outside staircase beginning to fall away.
"Into the street," Mum shouted. "Keep hold of the torch. The water's faster than a bus."
I looked down and saw her hand bleeding from the broken window glass. The blood was dark, almost black, and her hands were inky blue in the torchlight.
She pulled at my arm. The water was almost up to my waist. It rushed against us, knocking us down. We were half-walking, half-swimming.
"It's no good," Mum said, "we must go with the tide." We turned south towards the high street. "O Jesus," she said. "O Jesus, get us out of this."
I couldn't tell what was going to hit us next; it could be water, wood or brick. Everything was so dark.
"Get out! Get out! The flood comes," a man was shouting. He sounded foreign.
There were green electrical flashes in the night sky. I thought I could see two dead horses. Their heads were lolling flat amidst the foam, bodies twisted away, the hair of their manes separating off in strands. I didn't know the difference between air and water but I could tell, in the sparks of light, that a bungalow across the street had been lifted from its foundations and torn away.
Then Mum's ankle gave way and she stumbled, holding on to me to save herself from going under.
"It's all right, son, stay with me."
She tried to move her leg but couldn't.
She was stooping as if she was an old woman. Then she tried to lift and turn, freeing herself from whatever lay below, but she couldn't make herself upright.
"Are you stuck?" I said.
"I don't know."
Mum looked ahead, out into the night. "Shine your torch into the water. Can you see anything?"
"It's too dark."
"It must be a cattle fence."
I put my hand down to my mother's leg. There was barbed wire. I felt it cut into my hand.
"Careful," she said, losing her footing again. "You'll have us over."
Again, she tried to shake herself free. "It's no good. We'll have to wait for help."
"I can do it, Mum."
I pulled at her nightgown but she overbalanced, falling sideways towards me, pushing me down so that I felt us both go under. The water bubbled up into my face.
I thought I was drowning. I knew I had to surface as quickly as I could but the current was taking me away. As I came back up I heard my mother calling, but she was no longer close. I realized I had dropped the torch.
"Get help, Martin, get help."
I had to keep my head and body high, I had to try to let the water support me, and I swain towards the lights in the distance. Everything was noise. There were children shouting and distant sirens, but I couldn't tell where any of the sounds came from. I was going in circles through the darkness, calling my mother's name, alone in the rising flood.
I thought I heard her voice-"Martin, where are you?"-but I couldn't trust anything I felt or heard. All I wanted was light and dryness and for everything to stop and right itself and for the world to be still again.
A piece of driftwood bumped against my shoulder. If I could half-stride, half-swim then I could survive, but I found myself underwater and out of my depth.
A group of coffins floated towards me and I wondered if I was dreaming my own funeral. I prayed in my head, O Jesus, save me, and heard the prayer echo back in my mother's voice. Then I heard something else, not my mother, a man shouting through the darkness, urging me to take hold, telling me to use the wood as a float that would carry me to the end of the floodwater. I found an edge and a lid, and held a coffin sideways to my chest.
The wind cut into my lips. I could feel them cracking. I thought perhaps I could rest for a while against the wood. I stopped trying to swim and held on, not knowing whether I was heading out to sea or back towards the marshes and the railway line. The nearest objects were hidden by spray, and everything was covered in the smoke of fog, foam, and water. I closed my eyes and thought of fields, horses, and daylight.
I tried to imagine summer: on Dad's shoulders, Mum taking our photograph.
I pushed the coffin forwards, fending off everything around me: glass and doors from porches and garden sheds, old tires, bits of wood and metal. I thought I could see an "Old Bill" carnival head bouncing on the water by a stone rum jar. Nearby, a pig was shrieking, caught in a mass of debris. I let go of the coffin and turned onto my back, kicking hard, away from the danger, following the current. There were no lights in the buildings and the flood took me on, further inland.
I thought of my mother, still trapped, and of my father, still dancing.
My arms ached, and I wanted to sleep, but then I saw the outline of a group of houses in Point Road, and Ivy's sweet shop where Dad always bought the papers. I realized I was near Leigh Beck School. I could just make out shadowy figures moving quickly, carrying what looked like rugs, carpets, and linen, even battered suitcases, as if they had a train to catch or were waiting for a ferry through the flood.
I felt my left foot scrape against the ground. The tide was on the ebb and the water had lost its force. I could make out the torches of a family in the distance: a man with a girl on his shoulders, a woman with blankets and a baby.
I lowered my arm onto the road and felt the hard wet surface. Then I tried to stand.
The man shouted, "Come on, son. You're nearly there."
Scattered groups of people were making their way to a shelter lit by a car headlamp. The engine had been left running to show them where to go. They slid through the mud, the men with their hats, the women holding their skirts up against their waists, following the light. By the side of the road were ridges of salt from the water and a slew of chicken carcasses. An elderly woman in a dressing gown held a dog in her arms, a white poodle with bloodshot eyes, its body smeared with mud. Her husband carried a parcel of wet blankets tied with string. I could see another dog roosting in an apple tree and a woman rowing a dinghy with a pair of crutches.
"Are you coming?" the man asked.
"My mum," I said.
"What about her?"
"She'll be all right. The police are out. And the fire brigade. Loads of people to help, don't you worry."
"I have to find her."
"You can't go back there. Come into the school."
"Someone has to help her."
Then the man said, "You're Lenny Turner's boy. He can't be out in this. Where is he?"
"He went dancing."
"And left you alone? Couldn't he tell?"
"I don't know."
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"Come with us," said the man's wife. "We'll look after you."
A woman was pulling a drowned pig down the street. I wondered if she was going to roast it.
The shelter didn't look anything like school. The playground was filled with washed-up furniture. Survivors were brought in on inflated rubber rafts, tin baths, skiffs, and prams. A coil of rope led from the edges of the flood to the doorway. I looked at the faces of the people coming in. They were old and afraid.
Excerpted from CANVEY ISLAND by JAMES RUNCIE Copyright © 2006 by James Rnncie. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this book at the library. I was going to check out some new literature, and it was a new arrival. I wound up not being able to put it down. I read it all the way through in a few hours. It's not terribly long, pretty short actually. I would call it a character study. The story begins on Canvey Island on the night of a based-on-history, deadly flood, however all characters are fictional. The story is told through about 5 or so characters' eyes, alternating, in the first person. I would certainly recommend this for book discussion clubs. The story spans a good 50 years. The characters are very interesting and well developed, and would make for interesting discussion. I feel a good deal of people would enjoy it and could find themselves relating to at least one character. I intend to read it again.
In 1953, Martin¿s life is changed forever when a storm causes Canvey Island to flood. His mother is killed in the flood, while his father, aunt, and uncle have spent the evening dancing on the mainland. Over the course of the novel, the reader discovers how the death of his mother has affected Martin for years to come- well into his adulthood.As I read the novel, I kept finding myself wondering how Martin¿s life would have been different if his mother hadn¿t died when she did. Would he have made different choices if she had been around to influence him? As a boy, Martin was a sympathetic character, but as he got older, I wasn¿t nearly as sympathetic.One thing I really liked was the way this book made me think about how one single event can change a person¿s entire life. Had his mother lived, would he have chosen the career path he did? Maybe, but probably not; it wouldn¿t have been as significant for him. And a different career path might have set him on a completely different life course. So it was interesting to speculate on what would have happened had his life been different.Overall, I thought this was a very good book, in spite of the fact that I didn¿t have much sympathy for the main character. I¿d recommend it for anyone who likes post-World War II fiction that works its way into becoming more modern fiction.
Canvey Island could have been a real hit for me. It had the potential to be the type of novel I fall in love with. It uses multiple narrators, which is a device I enjoy, when written well. And I liked the writing - there were many passages I thought were beautifully written, expressing feelings and describing situations in ways that gave me chills. I should have really enjoyed this novel - but I really didn't.Honestly, this is my problem with Canvey Island - I just kept liking the characters less and less as the novel went on. This is a story which has as its major plot point a woman drowning. We follow her son, her husband, and her sister as they try to create lives for themselves in the wake of this tragedy. These are characters who, by their very nature, should tug at our heartstrings. But the longer I kept reading, the less sympathetic I felt. It just seemed like everyone spent so much time WHINING about how hard things were - and because the author used multiple narrators, we got to hear EACH and EVERY character take their turn. Granted, many bad things happened. But, as in real life, many bad things were the cause of their own bad decisions, and by the end of the novel I just didn't care.So I wanted to like it, but I just couldn't. For me, it was disappointing.
Canvey Island is, primarily, the story of Martin Turner, who, as a young boy, lost his mother to a deadly flood while his father and aunt were away dancing on the mainland. The moment his mother is in the ground, Martin's father and Aunt Violet become a little too close than seems decent. All of this, of course, leaves an indelible impression on young Martin who soon decides that his chief end in life will be to "stop water." Single-minded in the pursuit of this goal, Martin departs for Cambridge to study water engineering forsaking his girlfriend Linda, the only real love he has ever known since his mother passed. Afraid that loving someone so much will only lead to more heartache if she were ever lost to him and caught up in his ambitions for the future away from the island, Martin turns his back on Linda in favor of another girl who rivals his ambition in her own way. Claire is a rebellious vicar's daughter whose commitment to feminism, social change, and one especially notable peace camp rally trumps her commitment to Martin and their daughter Lucy. Each ceaselessly driven by their ever-elusive goals, the two drive each other away, and Martin ultimately finds himself back on Canvey Island, the very place that he was so desperate to leave behind, seeking the same things that eluded him even in the wider world. For a guy who lost his mother at a tender young age only to find his father getting together with his shallow, somewhat irritating aunt, Martin was a remarkably unsympathetic character. The rather stiff, over-literary writing style peppered with moments of unrealistic overthinking on the parts of the narrators seems designed to prevent one's ever getting close to the characters but for a few unexpected moments, none of which take place in Martin's narration. All of these characters should be sympathetic. They've lost their sister, their wife, their mother. They don't understand their places in the world. They made decisions in war time that might have caused unnecessary death. Their husbands love other women much more than they love their wives. These are people living lives that are average but hard, lives that might easily speak to our own experiences, and in most other books their plights would speak to readers' hearts, but these narrators, for the most part, seem so very hollow.Speaking of narration then, let's talk for a moment about narrators. Canvey Island has a bunch of them, around six, it seems, of varying importance and strikingly little differentiation in the voices. When done with flair and pizazz, multiple narrators can be great and give an amazing depth to characters and plot alike as in another "island" book Small Island by Andrea Levy. Unfortunately, though, it seems more often that authors undertaking to present the points of view of a vast array of narrators confuse readers and fail to even give one of them a unique and convincing voice. Such is the case with Canvey Island. Present are the points of view of Martin, his wife Claire, his lover Linda, his Uncle George, his Aunt Violet, and his father, Len. Their voices aren't ever especially different, and the narration appears to change for no apparent reason and to no apparent benefit. Cases in point are chapters when Runcie switches between Martin and say, Linda, midway through a conversation. You note, of course, that the beginning of the section is marked "Linda," but find that you're totally baffled at the accumulating "I saids" and "He saids" that pervade the mostly dialogue-based chapter in which the narrator is of little consequence anyway. To be quite frank, Martin and his family and his problems and total inability to ever be fulfilled by anything were, well, boring. Canvey Island has an interesting premise, a beautiful cover, and just the sort of first paragraph that would scream "take me home" if you happened upon it while browsing bookstore shelves. Unfortunately, the story itself fails to live up to its great promise.
James Runcie¿s Canvey Island is a quiet, thoughtful work of fiction that shows how the character of average people is shaped by the circumstances of their lives, much like the eroding British coastline his protagonist tries so desperately to rescue. As a young boy, Martin witnesses his beloved mother¿s death by drowning in a terrible flood on their island home. His father Len, in the meantime, is out dancing on the mainland with Martin¿s floozy aunt Violet and her husband George, a man who lost his sanity during a grisly battle in WWII. As an adult, Martin becomes a water engineer, studying England's rugged shore in hopes of understanding, containing and controlling the very sort of catastrophe that took his mother from him.The book is written in short chapters narrated by all the principle characters ¿ Martin, Len, Violet and George, as well as the two women in Martin's life - his first love, Linda, and his wife, Claire. It¿s an ingenius method of storytelling that allows readers to get everyone¿s viewpoint, and in their own words. And while some characters, most notably Aunt Violet, at the outset seem irredeemable, by the end of the book their rough edges are worn as smooth as the sea stones lovingly collected by art student Linda. They are like the malleable shoreline continually battered by the relentless seas, victims of their own experiences and, as their past is revealed to us, the characters become more human, easier to understand, somewhat likeable and, in certain respects, even quite valiant. Some critics were exasperated by the protagonist Martin because they found him to be too passive. For me, this was a large part of the book¿s fascination and most certainly its main point - that humans, by our very nature, are reactive more often than we are proactive. Martin, like the other characters, has been shaped by the events of his life. And his attempts to break free prove mostly futile. After his wife, Claire, goes off on a lengthy, women-only protest against the installation of missiles silos in the UK, he drifts back into an affair with Linda, his high school sweetheart. But ultimately, he hasn¿t the fortitude to choose between the women and instead takes the past of least resistance, breaking Linda¿s heart once more. A similar choice to the one made by his Aunt Violet so many years earlier.Runcie has created a loving portrait of post-war England and her people, worn down after the battering of WWII. As the story progresses, and he slowly reveals their secrets, each of characters acquires the burnish and richness of authenticity and all of them win our sympathies utterly. A truly rewarding read.
When I requested this book on the Early Reviewers I really thought I would like it. I was disappointed upon reading it. I like books that are written in this format, each chapter told by a character. I just did not feel compelled to keep reading. I wondered what would have happened to Martin had the tragedy of his mother's death not happened. How things would have been different for him. But other than that, I was not compelled to think to much about this book. I love, love, love books set in Canada, but even that did not help me to enjoy this book.
I received this book as an early reviewers copy. I enjoyed getting to know the characters and glimpsing into their lives. It was not a great book, it was not an awful book. Having the characters tell their own stories made the book interesting and easy to read, I enjoyed the style of the writing. I also like the setting, the coast of England. Stories on the ocean alwalys draw me to themI would give this book 3 1/2 stars.
Canvey Island is a good book about "ordinary" people living "normal" lives (in quotes because I don't believe there really is such a thing). This book reminds you that there is a story inside everyone's life. What makes it especially interesting is that while Martin (the boy who lost his mother in the flood at the beginning of the book) is the main character, the story is told from the perspective of several characters. This technique can often be distracting, so I was surprised to find that each character, even the women, had an authentic voice. As a woman, I admire a male writer who can write a believable female character, even if, as in this case, their motivations and histories are not explored as deeply as is the main character, Martin. This is a simple, well-written story about the jumble of love, loss and home and how they blend together in the cocktail of life - often with interesting or unexpected results. I probably would have rated it higher if there had been a little more humor in the story. It felt a little one-sided in its portrayal of the "seriousness" of life without enough of the joy.
Though I did think this book was fairly well written, it just didn't grab me. I was fine with the alternate points of view in each chapter, but somehow, even by the end of the book, I felt like I was someone just getting a very superficial view of a few inhabitants of a certain place, after a certain incident. I didn't feel like the story was pulled together enough & I didn't feel closure at the end, not to mention that none of the characters really appealed to me. By the last page, I was wondering what the real point of the story was & I felt depressed versus hopeful. Like I said, I didn't have a problem with the writing style, but the story itself just didn't really leave me with a good feeling.