Canvey Island is a six-mile by three-mile piece of reclaimed land in the Thames estuary just off the south Essex coast. It was mainly agricultural until the 1930s, when there was an influx of residents and holiday-makers. Just after World War II, the population had grown to about 13,000, and Runcie’s well-written story is about the young Martin Turner, his family, and his connection with the island over the course of his lifetime.
He begins on the night of the North Sea Flood of 1953, which wreaked havoc in the lives of all Canvey Island residents, and which resulted in the death of Martin’s mother, Lily—a loss from which Martin never fully recovers. The chapters reflect the voices of various people in Martin’s life: his father Len, his aunt Violet, uncle George, girlfriend Linda, and wife Claire. Runcie’s use of multiple points of view creates a depth of context and feeling for all the characters, so the reader really feels present in Martin’s life, from his 1950s childhood to his college years and married life in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond. After his mother’s death, Martin’s childhood and school-age years are miserable until he breaks away from Canvey, goes to college, marries an activist, and becomes a water engineer, all activities that move him forward. Personal and professional failures draw him back to the place and people of his youth, however, and the last third of this moving novel provides a bittersweet view into a life inexorably linked to geography and the past. Although the book is a fast read, it leaves one with much to enjoy and ponder after its last page.