1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 2: The Flood, by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin’s The Flood, on its own, would likely be a fine novel.  Not great, but by no stretch of the imagination a bad novel.  However, the work ultimately serves as an example of how one’s later career can influence how readers perceive their early works, and is likewise demonstrative of the tyrannical rule something as simple as an introduction can have over a novel.  Though there are some narrative issues that make it hard to suspend one’s disbelief, the novel is easily redeemed by its empathetic presentation of the working class. However, his own introduction and subsequent career cast two long shadows over the work that prove difficult to escape from.


I read the author’s introduction, which I don’t always do, as I think such introductions can often haunt the rest of the book. Rankin details his efforts to get his first novel published and admits that The Flood is a young author’s work. In the into, the author, who is famous for his crime/mystery novels featuring one Inspector Rebus (Rankin’s version of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe?), admits that the novel is not written in the same vein as those novels which have made his name so recognizable. Rankin speaks briefly of his literary pedigree and his aim to write the great Scottish novel, but it seems he may have set the book up for failure in the introduction as it encourages one to read it with the mindset that it is the work of some undergraduate who has yet to develop a true sense for the craft of writing.  The fact that he has set himself up as a contemporary Scottish writer aiming to write the great Scottish novel encourages the reader to draw comparisons to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, a novel of which I have a very high opinion. Had Rankin not bothered with the introduction, I likely would have not been inclined to put his work in this context.  In doing so, however, Rankin unintentionally invites the reader to compare his work with the very best works by his fellow countrymen.


As for the narrative, there are a few things that pull the reader out and make it hard to suspend their disbelief.  In the first part of the novel, Rankin reveals an brief and incestuous relationship. Up until the revelation of this incestuous relationship, there seems to be no suggestion of any sort of potential for a relationship of this sort being shared between the two characters, so when another of the novel’s characters deduces what happened, it seems more like a magic trick pulled out of a hat than a logical conclusion, one done for the sake of dramatic effect. In this section of the novel Rankin also describes the novel’s protagonist, Mary Miller, and states that her hair was shocked white after a dramatic event, a transformation that is scientifically impossible and pushes the reader out of the narrative, causing them to question the narrative before them.  Because the hair is reference throughout, and because the incestuous relationship shapes a later part of the novel, these plot points serve to pull the reader out of the narrative, making it hard to engage with the rest of the novel.


To it’s credit, the novel paints a picture an effective portrait of a working class mining town that sees its mine run dry. Its economy and population disappear with the mining business, leaving the town destitute. Rankin does a respectable job in sketching this atmospheric setting, but in delving into this working-class lifestyle, Ranking seems to put additional pressure on the work, placing it in line to be overshadowed by likes of James Joyce’s Dubliners, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (among other works) and Graham Swift’s Waterland. English literature is filled with great working-class stories, from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, to Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.  In putting his work in such company he has set the bar too high.


Rankin’s first novel is a commendable effort, but in framing the novel with such an introduction, he has restricted how readers will view the work, and given his later career, and the novel’s engagement with the working-class, it seems as though the work already has enough working against it that it doesn’t need the additional pressure of being dismissed by its own author and placed rigidly in context of a goal as lofty as being the great Scottish novel.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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