Now I’ve said it before – I do like a novel set in Birmingham, and When the Floods Came is set in a very recognisable Birmingham, although it’s an almost deserted city fifty years in the future.
Last Tuesday I attended an event at Waterstone’s in Birmingham, a book launch for Clare Morrall’s new novel – tickets were available free via Twitter – so it was lovely to see the place full – and enjoy a free glass of wine on a chilly Tuesday evening.
Clare Morrall spoke about how she had wanted to write about Birmingham again, of her fascination with roads, nursey rhymes and people living in isolation – all of which play a part in this new novel. Morrall explained how she had had to approach writing about the future, we know how quickly technology is evolving and so she had to invent a different type of internet, and how she hadn’t wanted to create a society living under a totalitarian regime. Hooked already,I started reading it two days later.
“It is late afternoon in August. Dense clouds hover overhead, signposting an end to the suffocating heat of summer. I’m standing on the steps at the entrance to the Birmingham Art Gallery, looking out over the amphitheatre of Chamberlain Square, examining the neo-Gothic tower, which only partially resembles its online image. The pool at the base, where small fountains once bubbled charmingly and prevented the water becoming stagnant, is now filled with mud, home for a profusion of marigolds and nettles. Vicious brambles are snaking their way up the tower, gripping it tightly, claiming yet another conquest on their path to world domination.”
When the Floods came opens twenty years after a virus wiped out much of the population of the UK, after which the country has been cut off completely from the rest of the world – living under rules of strict quarantine. The virus came following years of extreme climate change, severe floods had already changed where and how people were living, the British landscape altered forever. The government and the majority of the population has moved to Brighton and many previously highly populated areas have been reduced to rubble in a bid to help stop the spread of the Hoffman’s virus. The country is now sparsely populated, the majority of people are infertile, and children born post Hoffman’s are rare and precious.
In a tower block in Quinton live the Polanskis – Moth (Bess) and Popi (Nikolai)and their children Roza – a toddler when Hoffman’s struck, her brother Boris, and Delphine and Lucia both born post Hoffman’s. They have the entire block to themselves, now they are adults; Roza and Boris have their own flats – working for the Chinese online, though they still have time to join in all the Polanski traditions. The weather is a constant threat, violent and unpredictable; everyone is used to living by its rules. When snow means they can’t leave their flat – they play the stair game – and when the rain comes – so do the floods – and everyone stays inside again until the water recedes. Roza has a fiancée – she met online – Hector – from Brighton, who also works for the Chinese – and who is about to cycle (there are no cars anymore) up the M40 to meet Roza in the flesh for the first time. On the roof of the tower block the Polanski’s keep a goat Edward (female) and a few chickens – and as well as the produce they have access to growing in the Woodgate Valley their food is supplemented occasionally by drone drops from other nations.
Suddenly one day a stranger appears; Aashay is about thirty – draws cartoon cats everywhere he goes, and is strangely charming and suspiciously malevolent at the same time. Aashay quickly charms the whole family – he has a lot of knowledge about all sorts of things happening in the country that the Polanski’s have no idea about. Aashay appoints himself their guide – persuading them to accompany him to a fair at the Ricoh arena in Coventry – an event which officially doesn’t exist – and yet he tells them will be attended by at least a hundred people. Aashay is a fascinating character – constantly reminding the reader of Epstein’s Lucifer that stands in the round room of The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – who Roza gazes on shortly before Aashay turns up.
“So where do you come from, Aashay?’ he asks, his voice deliberately unthreatening.
Aashay doesn’t hear him. He’s operating a production line, a cake in each hand, ready to replenish his mouth as soon as there’s room and lifting the next cake out of a container as soon as he had a free hand. He chews fast, glancing around all the time as if he’s afraid it’ll be snatched away from him before he’s finished. But, no, that’s not right. He’s not a starving man, not someone who’s struggled to find food. It’s more that he believes everything belongs to him, that he expects to be given whatever is available. But he won’t accept anything from anyone unless he wants it. Everything’s on his terms. “
Can Aashay really be trusted? – why has Hector never mentioned the fairs – during his and Roza’s daily conversations, if they are so well known? – and will the Polanskis’ secret be revealed when they begin to meet lots of new people all at once?
Throughout the novel – Morrall drops in snippets of nursery rhyme – they belong to another time, but the Polanski’s cling to them – Lucia carries a book of nursery rhymes with her whenever they leave their flat.
“It belongs to all of us. It’s our heritage, even though the past it portrays goes a lot further back than our collective memories, or even those of my parents. But the pictures are embedded in my mind – brightly coloured characters with rosy cheeks and shining button eyes, dressed in unrealistic clothes, full of sweeping fabrics that represent an artist’s idea of the Middle Ages. The landscape is saturated with a benign light, an optimism, a cheerful world where all is well. These illustrations represent everything in my childhood, my family, my home.”
Hurrying back to their Birmingham home during a rain storm, the Polanski’s are forced to take shelter in an Internet Central station – almost the size of a small town – it was once an Amazon warehouse in pre-Hoffman’s days. Presided over by Dan – himself a rather creepy character – miles of computer terminals, hum gently. The Polanski’s wait out the storm – anxious to get home before Hector arrives from Brighton.
Aashay is proving daily more mysterious, very good at evading questions about his past – no one knows where he has come from. I won’t say much more – but the ending is all very edge of the seat – and I certainly couldn’t put it down during the last forty pages.
Clare Morrall’s latest novel is a really good, engrossing read – I loved all the recognisable Birmingham bits, the Museum and Art Gallery, Spaghetti Junction, the Five Ways roundabout – Morrall has managed to set her imagined future world within one that is still very recognisable. I had a few very minor questions – the ‘would that really happen?’ – ‘how did they?’ – type – but generally When the Floods Came is really very believable, beautifully written and utterly compelling. We are currently living in a world beset by extreme weather events and with images of the Zika virus on the evening news – When the Floods Came doesn’t actually feel all that far from what really could happen.