I came late to the cult of Ian Rankin. I had no idea that popular fiction could be so well-written and thrilling until I read Mortal Causes. As I wrote back when I blogged about Mortal Causes, I was perhaps more impressed by Rankin’s careful and seamless incorporation of the portrait of a society into a police procedural novel. That is why, when I spotted The Flood at the Strand Book Sale in June this year, I scooped it up.
As it turned out, The Flood is quite different from the crime novels with which Rankin has made his name. It is suspenseful and once again, portrays a society in flux, but the similarities end there. This is the novel that marked Rankin’s debut and his rawness – some would, rightly, call it ‘freshness’ – is evident. The prose, for instance, is not quite made up of the tautly drawn sentences, vibrating with tension, that one finds in his Inspector Rebus novels. The plot too, is less cynical: there are a lot of horrible happenings, one’s faith in humankind is shaken more than once, but in the end, there’s hope.
The story is set in a small coal mining community in rural Scotland, and the protagonists are a mother, Mary Miller, and her son Sandy. It kicks off with an incident that becomes the turning point of Mary’s life: when she’s a little girl she falls into a hot burn – a stream composed of hot waste water from the washing plant of the coal mine. She’s half dead when she’s pulled out and her beautiful hair turns white overnight. Then, when the boy who pushed her into the hot burn is killed in a mining accident, whispers of Mary’s powers start doing the rounds, and the villagers begin to look on her with fear and suspicion. Things take a turn for the worse, when she finds herself unmarried and pregnant. In the second part of the novel, Sandy finds himself developing feelings for the homeless gypsy girl, Rian, who seems to reciprocate his feelings. But he can’t be sure because he’s been brought up in a community that ostracizes gypsies, and ironically, his outcaste mother herself has a fit when she finds out that her son is in a relationship with a gypsy. In the final part of the novel, both mother and son have to deal with some harsh truths: Sandy, about the nature of his relationship with Rian and Mary, about her son’s paternity and the true story of his conception.
The novel draws on many different themes to power its narrative. In exploring the psychological and emotional growth of both Mary and Sandy, the book positions itself as a Bildungsroman. But it is also an amazing portrait of life in a small Scottish village, which has seen better days. In describing the economical and social decay of the village of Carsden, with its defunct coal mine and grubby houses, Rankin paints a depressing picture. It gives us a sense of the hopelessness that envelopes the village in general, and Mary and Sandy in particular. The titular flood, when it comes in the end, is almost Biblical in its fury and threatens to wipe out the village. It ends up washing away the lies and secrets that had damned existence for the mother and son. In the end, life offers them fresh hope and they have the chance to start their lives all over again.