Not Waving But Drowning

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Review of 'The Flood', Maggie Gee, Gazelle £12.99

The Flood is a vivid, futuristic disaster movie of a novel, with a political dimension that interacts, playfully and seriously (and not altogether convincingly, despite critical acclaim), with the terrifying times we now inhabit.

It's set in an anonymous seaside city in an unnamed country presided over by Mr Bliss, a 'pretty straight kind of guy' - who is waging an imperialist war against a Muslim country. The rich live in the posh apartments and the green hillsides. The poor are shut up in bleak, unkempt high-rise towers. The city is knee-deep in rising floodwater from incessant rain caused, the media claims, by terrorist activity. The streets are swarming with religious fanatics predicting the end of the world and protesters against the unending war.

Gee amalgamates the main characters from her previous novels, The White Family and Light Years, to create a web of relationships riven with tensions and attractions centred on her main themes - racism, poverty/wealth, war and political spin, and love. As in a disaster movie, the lives are depicted as parallel narratives, hinged on the impending disaster. Under a common threat relationships shift or deepen, people's dominant qualities come to the surface - courage, selflessness, avarice, vanity - and a morality tale emerges.

Also from the genre is the metaphorical power of the disaster itself. Think of The Towering Inferno, as fire ravages the palace of greed exposing the very architects of doom, or of The Poseidon Adventure in which the distressed vessel is a labyrinth through which the brave must pass to continue their human journey. The scene in The Flood is a leveller, rising, lapping, washing things away and transforming the scene.

The story is overpoweringly populous. It's hard work to keep up and remember where all the characters fit in. And this is where the book's weaknesses begin. It's clearly a tongue in cheek reflection on a fracturing world. The driving force of the narrative is the exciting, page-turning pressure of impending disaster. Of necessity there is limited time for psychology. But Gee uses this as an excuse to replay some tired stereotypes which undermine the genuine satirical quality of her writing.

Some of the characterisation is plain caricature. Despite the clear anti-racist message, the black characters are mostly minor, significant only in their relation to the main, white characters. Anti-capitalist teenagers are portrayed as middle class dilettanti with slogans on their underwear, devoid of political awareness. Anti-war protesters are small groups of die-hards waving placards.

The only anti-war activist we get to know is, incongruously, a businesswoman. A 'Marxist' is, oddly, angling for a knighthood. The anti-war posters are synonymous with the doom-prophesying religious ones, as if only zealots and fundamentalists could be bothered with something as crass and pointless as flyposting. Working class people are at best nobly simple-minded and at worst coarse and dishonest victims. The only wholly positive characters are an artist, a six year old child and a budding genius writer - all three sited outside the milieu of liberal sell-outs Gee fondly despises but with whom she shares a good dose of cynicism.

If, as the novel suggests, protest is futile or questionable, then disaster is logically needed for sweeping change. Reading the last chapters I was reminded of leafleting against the bombing of Kosovo and being informed by an art student that humanity was so corrupt it deserved to be blown to kingdom come. However, Gee is angling for redemption and does offer a compelling sense of hope, albeit a somewhat metaphysical one. You will have to read the novel to find out what that is.