At the foot of the bed was a heap of boxes sealed with brown tape. There was a large white label on each lid, and the labels all bore the same name, and the name was mine. After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry
Why are the inhabitants of an isolated, run-down house in the woods expecting John, when he doesn’t even know them and didn’t plan to go there? Who is posting sinister letters to the house, which seems to have slipped from the moorings of time? Why are similar messages carved and written into its fabric? The house is both benevolent and sinister, full of food but also dead plants, spiders, overpowering scents and odd objects such as glass eyes, false teeth and dolls’ hands.
There are biblical or mythical overtones to Sarah Perry’s first novel. The characters have names that are biblical (Eve, John, the preacher Elijah, Hester) or descriptive (Walker) and England is experiencing a heatwave and a drought that has driven the birds away. Hester performs the tragedian Racine. There are repeated references to an Anglo Saxon riddle or song about Wulf and Eadwacer. There’s a sense that John’s strange hosts are biding their time, waiting for a disaster or divine retribution.
As readers of her more recent novel The Essex Serpent would know, Sarah Perry is good at building tension and a sense of creeping horror. I’m tired, however, of books and films that demonise single women and their desires. The male characters are more sympathetically drawn than the ugly and dangerous Hester, the childish Clare, or the frail and androgynous Eve, who becomes, quite inexplicable, some kind of femme fatale.
One thing that undermines the suspense is John’s passivity, which strains credulity. Why doesn’t he say that his car has broken down and he’s not the person they were expecting? His headaches and tiredness become convenient, then he becomes part of the tiny community of the house and doesn’t want to leave. Then, as John begins to suffer not just from headaches but pain in his stomach, I started to wonder if he was being poisoned.
This is a book that haunts you for some time after you read it; I look forward to reading whatever Sarah Perry writes next.