CANVEY ISLAND by James Runcie


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For his third novel (The Colour of Heaven, 2003, etc.), British filmmaker and theater director Runcie chronicles the life and loves of an ordinary Englishman.

Martin Turner is a mere child in 1953 when a deadly storm ravages his island in the Thames estuary. His home is flooded and his beloved mother killed; his fisherman father Len, out dancing with his Aunt Violet, is spared. Throughout the novel Runcie crosscuts among six narrators, and the device works smoothly enough, especially in conveying the horror of the storm. His mother’s death will shape Martin’s character, making him fearful of the sudden loss of love, and his ambitions. “I’m going to stop water,” the boy declares, and he later becomes a water engineer, specializing in coastal erosion. His solitary childhood is supervised by grumpy Len and overbearing Violet, too busy romancing each other to cater to the child’s needs. Things look up in adolescence when his neighbor Linda shows him the wonders of sex; the young lovers break up when Martin becomes a student at Cambridge, where he falls in love with fellow student Claire, to whom he proposes over a Sunday lunch with her family. His character could have used more bold strokes, for Martin makes a poor catalyst for the story, which despite many good touches (smart, credible dialogue; a keen eye for class differences) is hollow at the center. Martin and Claire have a daughter, Lucy. In 1983 the feminist Claire camps out with Lucy at a months-long, women-only, anti-nuke protest. Feeling abandoned, Martin briefly returns to Linda, then reconciles with Claire; he’s less a heel than a ditherer. Here the novel runs out of steam; skeletons concerning Martin’s paternity and an abortion stay in the closet. The wrap-up has Martin attending his dying father.

Captures the rhythms of family life but isn’t distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59051-293-7
Page count: 312pp
Publisher: Other Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2008