I have heard many authors describing the origins of their first novel. In many cases it coalesced around a germ of an idea or an experience that that had had. I would love to know how David Maine arrived at the idea for his first novel, The Flood, which was published in 2004 and long-listed for the Guardian's First Book Award.
In essence, the author retells one of the best known stories in the Old Testament, that of Noah, his Ark and the Flood (and the menagerie of animals). The source that he uses, is the Douay Bible, translated in Rheims (1582) and published in Douay ( 1609). Consequently we read about Noe, and his sons Sem and Cham, rather than the more familiar Noah, Shem and Ham. Japheth is the remaining son. I found that this subtle change was sufficient to provide distance from the very familiar childhood story, which became very much more alive, brutal and frightening in this retelling. What we get here may be, in some ways, akin to how the story would have been told by the `fire and brimstone' preachers of olden days.
Although there is also much humour, Maine does not update or tell the story with a 21st century knowing wink. This is serious, deadly serious story-telling. Noe is a grumpy, unpleasant 600 year old who lives a patriarchal life in a patriarchal time. His response, when he hears a voice inside his head telling him to build a huge boat, is to piss himself, then to gather his family and order them to start building. One advantage of a patriarchal society is that no-one argues with dad. He may be stupid or mad but he will be obeyed.
There is much farting, rutting and men tugging themselves which I do not remember from Genesis. It starts to rain and the jeering masses are desperate to be let aboard. Noe's daughter-in-law wonders whether some of the children might be rescued but Noe knows that children will be born on board, after all that's what patriarchs are for.
Like a Medieval Mystery Play, or a modern retelling, there are different voices, 8 in all, and only Noe never talks directly to the reader, no doubt a patriarchal rule. The voices, in a series of short chapters, describe the biblical story, building the ark, collecting the animals, awaiting the deluge, floating away, floating, ever floating, then eventually seeing the bird with the leaf, settling on Mount Ararat. But crucially we also get the inserts, they grow tired, get bored, are hungry and become thoroughly annoyed with one another and silently seethe at Noe.
Noe's wife sighs, gets on with life and does most of the work; the three daughters-in-law, the strength of this unique family, are the only non-drowned fertile women and comment on their situation and the characters around them. These women, not named in Genesis are here named Bera, Ilya and Mirn. The women, verily, are the strong ones. Bera, an African sold by her father as a child slave, is detached and thoughtful. Ilya, raised under the influence of powerful goddesses, is a proto-feminist, while Mirn, still a girl, sees God in small things, mating snakes, a spider's web.
Maine's early biography is fascinating, an American who has worked in national mental health systems, he lived in Morocco and is now settled in Pakistan. Moreover, he writes with assuredness about the desert, nomads, primitive communities and imagines in a convincing manner how, in Noe's time, verbal communication might have developed. Time after time, Maine ignores the easy opportunities to draw parallels with our technologically-advanced time: oceans rising = environmental catastrophies, prophets crying out against the godlessness of modern civilization = religious fundamentalism, punishing unbelievers = global terrorism.
In a debut novel, an author must be under such enormous pressure from editors, friends, "experts" and their own internal voice to tie up loose ends and not leave the reader wondering. Maine ignores all these pressures and maybe, as a result, lost an award, but he remains a genuine independent voice and is all the more important for that.
The style is open and fluent so that the reader can zip through the book. But then one begins to think what has been read and its true depth becomes apparent, just like the rising waters under Noe's Ark, and we all know what that led to.