Canvey Island

This novel tells the story of post-war England through one family’s tragedy and loss. It starts with the Great Flood of 1953 and ends with the Greenham Common protests in the late nineteen-seventies.

Canvey Island book cover

“I know the fear of death is always with us but sometimes it can disappear for days. You don’t think about it when your wife is coming to bed and she takes off her nightgown and you’re excited by her nakedness even if you have been married for a long time. You don’t think about it when your child gives you a smile that you know is meant only for you or when the sea is dead calm and you’re out fishing with no one to trouble you. You don’t think about death, of course you don’t, it never crosses your mind, but then back it comes, far too soon, telling you not to be so cocky, don’t think this is going to last mate, this is all the happiness you’re going to get and you should be grateful I didn’t come before.”

Photographic inspiration

boats
boats
Canvey Alt 2
Canvey Paperback
Canvey estuary
Canvey estuary
Canvey Island
Canvey Island
Canvey seascape
Canvey seascape
estuary 2
estuary 2
Floods 1
Floods 1
Floods 2
Floods 2
Floods 3
Floods 3
Graveyard
Graveyard
James in Canvey Island)
James in Canvey Island)
Labworth Cafe
Labworth Cafe
Mending the sea wall
Mending the sea wall

The Story

It is 1953 in Canvey Island. Len and Auntie Vi are dancing, he in polished shoes and slicked hair, she in fur stole and long gloves. They move lightly, with an easy sway. Uncle George sits and watches, but his mind is elsewhere, still fighting a war that has been over for almost a decade.

Back at home, Len’s wife Lily and their small son Martin are fighting for their lives, waist-deep in a raging black torrent of water. Lily’s foot is stuck, but she begs her son to leave her, to try and get help. This sight of his mother, ghostly in her drenched nightdress, is his last glimpse of her alive.

In the years after the flood, Len turns to Vi for comfort, and as Martin grows older he feels estranged from them both, shadowed by feelings of guilt and loss. As we follow the family in the aftermath of their bereavement, we follow too the fortunes of England, from Churchill’s funeral to Greenham Common, from the austerity of the post-war years to the day the Iron Lady swept into Downing Street, and beyond.

Canvey Island tells the story of changing times in post-war Britain through one family’s tragedy and loss. It is a novel about past wounds and past passions, about growing up and growing old, about love, hope and reconciliation.

Reviews

“I had hours of understated pleasure with Runcie’s Canvey Island”

Helena Drysdale, New Statesman, `Books of the Year’

“This book had me hooked before the end of the first sentence, and its characters stayed with me for weeks afterwards ... excellent”

Wendy James, New Books

“This is an accomplished, restrained novel of class and personal conflict, with some great lines and a lovely eye for period detail”

Robert Colvile, Observer

“All engulfing… a modern epic of generational, social and political change.”

Vogue

“Runcie has treated us to an accomplished, restrained novel.”

Daily Telegraph

“Canvey Island, James Runcie’s tender, intimate account of post-war England, left me both wistful and elated: wistful because of the inevitably compromised emotional lives of its characters, their furtiveness and timidity, their betrayals and bereavements; elated because the novel is so engaging, so well-shaped and so unsparingly, generously truthful.”

Jim Crace

The Idea

This is a novel about family secrets. How much do we need to know about our parents lives, and how much do we really want to know? By the same turn, how much do we want our children to know about us?

Perhaps a family needs its secrets.

Canvey Island is about one family and one place over forty years and deals with all the confusions, expectations, and betrayals that come with the passing of time. I’ve tried to make it both affectionate and true, humane, I suppose, in its dealing with the emotions of parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and lovers.

It is also a novel about Britain and the changes it has seen since the last world war; how expectations have been met or thwarted, how personal lives have become more open and confessional, how families have become fragmented and confused.

It’s a family story, a condition of Britain novel, and a book about marriage and children.

It’s about love, faith and redemption.

And it has jokes.

Audio


Canvey Island was broadcast as a Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4. Here’s a short extract.

Audio