On this page I’ve collected all the blog posts I wrote about flood fictions
You might also be interested in reading about my book Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel.
Narrating crisis: the stories we tell about floods (June 2016)
I have recently become fascinated by flood narratives. Part of that, perhaps, has to do with growing up on a (former) island on which the memory of the 1953 North Sea flood is still very much alive. It also has to do with contemporary circumstances, especially how floods are presented as a consequence of environmental crisis.
What fascinates me most is how flood narratives connect us to the past, present and future and how they are ubiquitous in many cultures. I’m fascinated by the different cultural responses to that. As I wrote in an earlier post, the Netherlands has recently framed their centuries-old battle with the sea in terms of ‘living with water’. Contemporary literary flood narratives, though, are relatively rare in the Netherlands. In the UK, however, the number of novels in which floods are tied in with environmental crisis is increasing. Examples are Sam Taylor’s The Island at the End of the World, Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, Maggie Gee’s The Flood, Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship.
In June 2016 I gave a paper on 21st-century British flood narratives at the conference of the International Society for the Study of Narrative in Amsterdam. In it, I focus especially on the way in which flood narratives engage with storytelling. In many flood novels, narrators and characters explicitly try to make sense of flooding by framing it in terms of traditional stories. At the same time, the floods often coincide with larger societal collapse. In this collapse, books, records and stories have often gone lost. As such, I argue, flood novels use narratives as synecdoches for civilization, and the loss of narratives becomes the loss of civilization, humanity – even a symbol for the end of the world.
Starting a new project: Flooded Pasts, Flooded Futures (15 April 2018)
My new project is on what I call “flood fictions”, novels that use floods as a literal consequence of climate crisis, but also as a symbolic image for life in the Anthropocene: unpredictable, overwhelming and quite literally engulfing. Floods become synecdoches for climate crisis as a whole, bringing the large scale developments leading to and effects of climate change into relatively small-scaled and contained environments.
The unnamed narrator of Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From (2017) hears disturbing news just weeks before giving birth to her son: “the water is rising faster than they thought. It is creeping faster. A calculation error. A badly plotted movie, sensors out at sea” (3). The waters are rising, creeping towards London – and while she’s in the hospital, the really bad news comes. London, it seems, has been lost to the water: “An unprecedented flood. London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children. Ours” (8). Hunter’s novel is just one of several contemporary British novels that imagine floods as a consequence of climate crisis.
Floods are a recurring feature of the climate crisis imagination, both literally and symbolically. In disaster films floods provide welcome imagery, from the flooded planet in Waterworld (1995) to the flooding of Manhattan, leaving only the Statue of Liberty standing in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and the breaching of the Thames Barrier in the 2007 British film Flood.
Sensationalist though these films may be, flooding is a very real consequence of climate crisis. Global warming is linked to increased flooding in most European countries, as well as in other areas around the world (Alfieri et al.). In Britain, changing environmental and climatological circumstances will make floods twenty times more likely by 2080, affecting at least twice as many people than are currently at risk from flooding. Little wonder, then, that many twenty-first-century fictions imagine a very wet future, especially for Britain.
Floods are also a powerful symbol to describe climate crisis. Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 documentary Before the Flood uses the image of the flood as a kind of environmental turning point, a tipping point after which broad-scale climate crisis can no longer be prevented. Similarly, the 2017 film Downsizing, in which humans have themselves shrunk in order to have a smaller environmental footprint, ends with a waterless, but no less dangerous flood. When the methane levels in the atmosphere reach dangerous heights, a group of idealistic environmentalists descends into a cave under the earth’s surface, in an attempt to wait out the next great extinction – of humans. The cave, the film’s protagonist realizes, functions as a kind of Noah’s Ark.
A similar extinction event is referred to as the ‘waterless flood’ in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam-trilogy, in which a scientist creates a deadly virus that wipes out a considerable part of humanity. Similarly, the deadly flu that kills off most of humankind in Station Eleven (2014) is framed as a flood: “‘The flu’, the prophet said, ‘the great cleansing that we suffered twenty years ago, that flu was our flood” (60). In a slightly different vein, Ali Shaw envisions an arboreal flood in The Trees (2016), when Britain is quite literally swamped, and destroyed, by millions of trees popping up overnight.
Eventually, my new project will lead to another monograph. Before that, I have a few conference papers planned, and at least two articles about the different dimensions of flood fictions. The list of novels that I’ll analyse is growing, but includes Hunter’s The End We Start From, The Ship (2015) by Antonia Honeywell, When the Floods Came (2016) by Clare Morrall, The Carhullan Army (2007) by Sarah Hall, The Flood (2004) by Maggie Gee and All Rivers Run Free (2018) by Natasha Carthew.
Disrupted narratives: Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army as a flood novel (May 2018)
In May 2018 I attended an international symposium on the work of Sarah Hall in Leuven. The paper I presented is part of my new project on flood fictions. As I wrote before, by flood fictions I refer to twenty-first-century works in which flood is imagined as one of the key effects of climate crisis. Floods also have symbolic value in these works, referring often to the socio-economic collapses that have taken place in the future. At the same time, floods seep into the novels, breaking up the narrative and leading to fragmentation and language erosion.
In the paper, I defined the genre in a bit more detail, placing it in wider cultural context in which flood is a recurring feature in environmental discourse and disaster films. I discussed how floods are depicted in The Carhullan Army and how this relates to the societal and political collapse that has taken place. I also talked about the importance of books to the novel’s main character, Sister, and how this is echoed in other flood fictions. Books provide a link between the novels’ first readers and their characters, but also suggest that stories, storytelling and the novel as genre are somehow particularly important in a time of climate crisis.
In the final part of the paper, I focus on the fragmented nature of The Carhullan Army, which consists of a series of records, becoming increasingly incomplete towards the end. I place this fragmentation in the context of other flood novels – especially Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From.
The full text of the paper, including the sources I used, is available here.
The End We Start From and the genre of flood fiction (June 2018)
Megan Hunter’s 2017 novel The End We Start From starts with an unnamed narrator giving birth to her child while around her London floods.
This novel is one of the flood fictions that I explore as part of my new research project.
In June 2018, I gave a paper on The End We Start From as an example of flood fiction at the Marine Transgressions conference in Bristol.
New article: Flooded Futures (May 2019)
In this article I set out the genre of “flood fictions”, novels that use floods to depict climate crisis. I explore a few twenty-first-century British novels (Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came, and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army) in which floods are literal and figurative consequences of climate crisis.
A second characteristic of flood fiction is that they portray the literal submersion of the narratives themselves by means of language erosion and narrative fragmentation. Importantly, flood fictions tackle some of the imaginative and representative challenges posed by the Anthropocene. My reading of these novels provides an intervention in current debates on imagining and narrating climate crisis and presents a previously unexplored and underexplored subset of literary works.
The full text of the article is available here.