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Canvey Island by James Runcie


Canvey Island by James Runcie

Canvey Island by James Runcie was published in 2006 but I didn’t read it until recently. It is a very clever writer who can chop up a novel into several voices and make it work. This story is told by Martin, a young child in the beginning. His father Len, his aunt Violet, her husband George, Martin’s first girlfriend, Linda, and his wife, Claire make up the rest of the cast of characters.

31 January 1953. The flood waters washed over Canvey Island, homes were destroyed and lives were lost. Families are never the same again, but life goes on.

Martin lives in fear of the water for the rest of his childhood, and he determines that he will study and learn how to prevent this sort of flood from ever happening again. It is his way to atone for the deaths that took place during the devastating flood of 1953.

This is a difficult novel to write about, because in order to discuss how the characters behave I would give away the events that occur and ruin the suspense that has been created. Martin, all of his young life, is looking for love and security; but when he finds love as an adult he is drawn away from it and risks destroying it all. Len is a nice guy, but follows the path of least resistance in his own life. There is a lovely, very touching scene, when Len takes Martin out on his fishing boat to show his son what it is that his father does, and we see the intimacy between father and son - something very precious. George has come home from the war, damaged. Poor George. His wife, Violet, is not prepared to care for her husband, and he loses any chance he might have had for recovery. But, it is Violet who is both the most brave and the most tragic character. She deludes herself into accepting that her life is as it is. This is post war England, in a small isolated community. Everyone knows everyone, and all of their “business”.  As Martin grows up he begins to understand the lives of the adults around him – and the complications of their relationships.

Martin’s first girlfriend, Linda, is a childhood friend. They know each other’s past lives, and find a comfort in the love they come to share. Together they leave Canvey Island and Martin begins his education and his adult life. But, Linda no longer fits. It is Claire, the daughter of a minister, who becomes Martins wife. Martin has achieved the life he desired – an education and employment in his chosen field. A wife who at first seems to be what he wants. But these are the early days of feminism and Claire leaps into the movement, and into the peace protest at Greenham Common. There is conflict in this marriage.

With the passage of time there are changes in relationships, settling of accounts, and the child becomes a middle-aged man. Older people die and young ones become adults as the years pass. The reader feels a rare privilege to have shared it.

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