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I am not naturally drawn to Bible stories, and if it were not for a friend lending and recommending her copy of The Flood, I would never have thought to give it a try. However, once I had started reading this modern interpretation of the age old story of Noah and his family, it started to grip me and, to my own surprise, I found myself reading it avidly until the final page was turned.
The Flood does not hold any hidden surprises; Noe hears the voice of God and, obeying, starts to build his Ark. The flood waters come and events take their course. There was something reassuring and familiar about reading this well-known tale, rather like re-reading a fairy or folk tale, and I felt strangely comforted by the familiarity.
What makes this story so engaging is down to the insight and talent of the author; David Maine. The humour is modern and very funny; the language and the commentary from the various characters that comprise Noe's family make the reader laugh and also become desperate to turn the page and find out what happens next. The women are independent and strong - each with their own unique voice; it is the women who provide the wry humour, the cynical asides, and who take the lead in this story. The men, by comparison, appear as foolish, self indulgent and a little pompous. This is a very different take on the traditional Bible story where the wives of Noah and his sons are not even named.
David Maine adds to this sense of novelty by basing his story on the Douay Bible, translated in 1582, and his characters are spelled as in that edition; turning into Noe, Sem and Cham rather than Noah, Shem and Ham.
In the first part we are introduced to Noe and his family. Noe is the 600 year old patriarch of the family; cantankerous and uncontrollably randy, he still commands the respect of his wife and sons, even though some of his faculties are starting to fade and him mind lacks the decisiveness of a young man. He is no religious role model although he has a direct line to God; he hits his wife, is stubborn and selfish, and frequently shows the weakness of a rampant sexual appetite in a very physical and visible way.
Noe's three sons are Sem, Cham and Japheth; each of them with their very individual characteristics. Sem is the obedient but fairly dull eldest son; obeying his father's every instruction unquestioningly, he is married to Bera, the wife that his father bought for him from the pedlar Dinar. Bera, an African sold as a child slave, remains detached, thoughtful. Bera has some of the funniest lines in my opinion; when they are discussing how the animals should be stored in the ark, suggesting "Brown and grey on the bottom, yellow and orange in the middle, black and white on top" ?
Cham is the middle son, the sensible builder of boats and the one who takes on responsibility. He is married to the magnificent Ilya, the strong Nordic woman who likens humanity to a beehive, where the men do all of the work but are controlled by the Queen bee. As strong and as brave as any of the men, she produces beautifully cynical asides that put the whole situation into perspective in a way that most women will relate to very easily.
Japheth is the youngest; a giggling, awkward teenager he is married to the equally young Mirn. Mirn's voice is quiet and timid, but she has the insight to see small details about their lives that the others miss.
The whole family is tended and subtly managed by Noe's wife. She is only ever referred to as The Wife, but her power over the family and the deep love they feel for her is never in any doubt. Noe's wife was 13 and he was celebrating his fifth centenary when they married. Since that time the Wife has learned to take life with a large dose of cynicism, referring to Noe as Himself, she appears to follow his wishes but in reality she treads her own path through life very firmly.
The story of Noe and the flood is narrated through these eight voices, each taking it in turn to give their opinion and progress report. An unnamed narrator tells the story of Noe, but the other characters all have their very individual voices.
The book is divided into three parts; Cloud, Rain and Sun. Relating this to the story of Noah and the flood is not difficult. The first part (Cloud) describes the message from God and the long process of building the ark. We meet the raucous and ungodly villagers who mock Noe for his visions and who make the family's life a misery as they build the ark and collect the animals.
The second part of the book (Flood) describes the waters that cover the earth and the difficulties encountered by eight people enduring the close confines of a small boat stuffed with a variety of dangerous and unpleasant animals. Noe collapses from the strain and spends most of the time as an ill and rambling old man, leaving his Ark without a leader and drifting spiritually as well as physically on the turbulent waters of the flood. To pass the time, they invent betting games, throwing olive stones at the birds on deck and taking bets on which one will fly the highest. The sons and their wives start to squabble and bicker ; Japeth, the youngest son and wife rut like animals, unashamedly and in front of their family, trying to stave off the boredom; Cham the broad shouldered boat builder feels the responsibility of keeping everybody alive. Gradually the family succumb to the tedium and worry, becoming more like animals themselves; Cham feels the pressure, "Unwashed bodies and staring eyes; all of them saying nothing but asking the same question: will we die because of you"?
Sun gives us the story of what happens once the waters subside; the difficulties of creating a new community and bearing the responsibilities of repopulating a bereft planet. The family that have endured so much find that at last it is time to go their separate ways and to obey the will of God. The ending is deeply moving and a sign of the way that David Maine has managed to draw the reader in to the characters and the story.
I really enjoyed reading the familiar story of the flood. David Maine manages to give the whole novel a completely authentic feel by using language that has a real flavour of the Old Testament - but at the same time he cleverly uses the language to give the story a modern twist. The use of the word 'rut' is a good example of this; if you are angry you tell somebody to 'rut off' or to 'rut yourself' - at night the sound of the youngest couples rutting can clearly be heard in the communal bedroom. When Noe asks a pedlar to look out for building materials for the Ark, the man answers that, "I'm switching to luxury goods. Fatter margins on silk and spices and bangles and wine." Without using too much modern language, Maine manages to make the dialogue relevant and up to date - and it is this that gives the whole book its unique feel.
The pace of the narrative is very fast, as the reader engages in a variety of conversational stories with one character after another, getting a different viewpoint every time. I found that this made the book impossible to put down, and I read it very quickly over two days, enjoying every chapter. Even though the events and the ending were inexorable, part of me still wondered if there was going to be a twist or a change in the age old tale.
In the end, there was a type of twist, and I found myself very moved by the final chapter. Even though it has now been a couple of weeks since I finished the book, the characters are still very clear in my mind and I still feel a certain affection for each of them as I am writing this review. For me, this is the sign of a good book; one that I will remember with fondness over the years.
David Maine is an American novelist who was born in Connecticut in 1963. He has lived in Morocco and Pakistan, and he perhaps this helps him write about primitive communities with such conviction.
The Flood was his first novel and was published original as The Preservationist in the US, later being published as The Flood in the UK.
The Flood was longlisted for the Guardian's First Book award.
It was published by Cannongate in 2004 and has 259 pages.