Runcieís novel begins with the flood of Canvey Island in 1953. While his aunt Violet and father, Lem, are off to a local dance, Martin spends a quiet evening with his mother, Lily, who prefers to stay at home with her boy, out of the driving rain outside.
The dancing goes on, the wind screams, and the water rises. Martin wakes up to find his room filling with water and his mother immobilized by fear. Mother and son escape the house, but in the chaos that follows that terrifying night, Lily is lost: ďBy the time the storm reached us we didnít have a prayer.Ē
Martin is left with the predictable childish interpretation of such a loss, believing he might have done something to save his mother. As the years stretch out before him, Martin is haunted by the loss of the most important person in his life, his future choices shadowed by that loss and the tentative, distrustful nature of the world he inhabits.
Canvey Island bears the scars of the flood but also the social stigma of the low-income families who reside there. After the initial drama, the novel settles back into the predictability of everyday problems, Lilyís family dealing with her loss and moving on, each irrevocably altered by her death.
While Martin, who becomes a water engineer, is affected most profoundly, the others carry their own guilt and rationalizations: Len, who fails his wife by leaving her alone the night of the storm; Violet, a selfish woman who cares for her own comfort and happiness above others; and the shell-shocked George, Violetís husband, who has returned from the war a changed man.
In alternating chapters, Martinís life unfolds, his first serious grief and the woman he marries, as well his fatherís, Violetís and Georgeís perspectives. Perhaps Martin might have been a different man had his mother lived, but it is impossible to know. In unsparing prose that reveals the human flaws of the characters in Martinís life, the great social changes in the country, and Martinís reaction to his choices, all play an important part in the evolution of boy to man.
Runcie paints a convincing portrait of a man touched by natureís unpredictability, floundering on the difficult terrain of a world defined by few expectations and a lack of self-confidence. From the flood in 1953 to the banalities of the Ď80s, Martin struggles with direction, relationships, and an unassuaged yearning for a home that can never be restored after that fateful night.