Books Read While Travelling South to Bury My Grandparents: After the Flood, by Kassandra Montag
There are categories of books that will stay long in your memory because of who you were or where you were or what was happening when you read them. Books Found On Other People’s Bookshelves is one such category for me. Books Read On Holidays is another. There is also Books Consumed During A Fever Haze, and Books Read In Partnership With Other People.
Now I find I must add a new category to my list: Books Read While Travelling South To Bury My Grandparents. Three years ago, I read Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue on the long drive down to the Hunter Valley after the death of Pa, my mum’s dad. The experience was something akin to watching a movie on a plane: locked in place, little say in how the journey would unfold, and with every emotion crystallised and distilled. And now I’ll always associate Words in Deep Blue with Pa.
Last week, I began Kassandra Montag’s recently-released novel, After the Flood, at the beginning of another 731-kilometre road trip, this time to farewell Nan, my dad’s mother. It’s a strange time, considering goodbyes, reunions with relatives one hasn’t seen in an age, navigating an odd mix of emotions and insecurities and hopes. One would think real life could provide sufficient drama for any such season, but somehow a fictional drama, set in another time and another place yet in a world itself in mourning, was the perfect paper companion for such a trip, and now After the Flood will be irrevocably linked in my mind with Nan.
Perhaps this one could be classified as cli-fi, maybe dystopian, perhaps speculative, certainly post-apocalyptic fiction, for the world of After the Flood is a sodden one, a postdiluvian nightmare in which sea levels have risen to cover the majority of earth’s land mass, and those not taken by the floods fight for life on the open water or stake a tentative claim on the tiny pockets of land that remain. In a world scored and scarred by nature’s breakdown, society is a mere relic, and new forms of law and retribution have risen to take the place of government. Survival is everything, and love, art, and leisure are all luxuries that no longer exist.
Myra and her tiny daughter Pearl are a tight-knit coil of resilience and terror. Myra has raised Pearl to be fierce, to steal from the seas what she needs to survive, and there is no room in their lives for anything but each other and the shadow left by Myra’s firstborn daughter, Row, stolen from Myra eight years earlier. Myra’s attention is divided between two key pursuits – keeping Pearl alive, and getting Row back – and every decision she makes is ruled by this dual purpose.
Nothing is easy in this battered version of her old life, but Myra and Pearl’s daily fight for survival is further complicated when they first encounter a stranger in need of help, and then others determined to build a new and better life. Myra is hawkish, desperate, wary. On one hand, she needs the information and perhaps protection that these people can offer. But she knows, too, that there is no one she can truly trust in this brave new world. While externally every day is a bitter battle for life, the true war is an internal one, as Myra must break and then rebuild the walls she constructs in order to keep herself and her daughter alive.
After the Flood is a debut, but it doesn’t feel in the least like it. Montag’s voice is crisp, assured, and deeply readable. The book has the pacing of a thriller (my only complaint is that, at times, the shift in circumstances seemed almost too fast) and all the beauty of literary fiction. The world-building of this future-earth setting is impeccable, a delight and a dread to behold, and never feels overwritten or indulgent. The shining star of this novel, though, is Montag’s complex, contrary characterisation of Myra, a mother who both loves and neglects her child, who respects and abuses those she must befriend, who seeks peace while pursuing violence. She is a woman made of the circumstances around her, deeply capable and desperately uncertain. Myra is fierce and fragile, soft and hard, and I will remember her long afterwards.
After the Flood
Published September 2019 by HarperCollins Australia