Killer Reads | 2019 (ebook: 27 June, Pb: 5 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
Poppy knows that tomorrow morning at about 8am she will die. A volcano is expected to collapse far out in the Atlantic, setting off a tsunami a 100-foot high that will devastate the coasts around the ocean, including Britain and Ireland. Poppy lives in the far west of Cornwall. The peninsula is gridlocked, the warning too brief. And so, preferring to meet her end as she chooses rather than sitting in a traffic jam, Poppy writes a Facebook post saying that she will spend her last day and night on the beach at her favourite place, Dowetha Cove, and anyone is welcome to join her. The post captures the imagination of people, whether safe and morbidly fascinated in what is going to happen or whether they’re trapped in Cornwall, too. A few of those travel to join Poppy on the beach and there they have what could have been the perfect day, if not for the shadow of the wave rushing so fast across the ocean to end their lives.
As soon as I received a copy of The Wave to review, I read it. I’m a big fan of disaster thrillers but this also has the appeal of a small group of people coming to terms with their own imminent mortality in such a beautiful place. I know Cornwall well and I can understand why people would be drawn to it at such a time, although Cornwall is now not a place of safety but a place of danger.
The Wave is not so much a novel about the tsunami itself but about the lives of the people who gather together, most of them strangers, on the beach: Poppy, Yan, James, Nikki, Margaret, Shelley and Harry. They’re all ages and, as they spend this time getting to know each other, they discover that they are each very different indeed but, while they have heated discussions or arguments about life, a couple of them form life-changing bonds. If only it weren’t too late.
The novel’s narratives flickers between all five in sections named after some of the prayer events that divide the spiritual day and night, such as lauds, prime and compline. This reflects the book’s at times contemplative nature as one character at least finds comfort in religious faith. The book isn’t overtly religious at all but religion is an important theme. As is, to a lesser extent, politics. I’m not sure I’d want to waste my last night on Earth debating party politics and Brexit, but this lot do. Mostly, though, these people do what you’d imagine – reflect on their lives, regret their mistakes, phone their families, cling to those with them, as well as drink wine and cook over an open fire, build sandcastles and enjoy the feel of the sun and sea air on their faces.
I must admit to some conflicting feelings about this novel. I found it utterly engrossing and couldn’t put it down but there is something about the book, and the people, that I didn’t completely get along with. Firstly, these people are obsessed with social media – and with the comments that people leave on their Facebook posts. It hardly seems any time at all to be worrying about trolls. Also, their phones and tablets never run out of battery, even though they’re camping on a beach for a day and a night and never off them. There’s a lot of time spent thinking about ex partners as well as, as mentioned before, arguments about politics. All of this combined, for me, to make the characters feel a bit vacuous and uninteresting.
And then there’s the matter of whether to try and escape from Cornwall or not. We’re told that the government has decided not to evacuate Cornwall but to focus on the northern coastal areas instead and trains are diverted up there. I don’t know about this… Also, when people are driving out of Cornwall and get stuck, they give up and just drive back again – as if only one side of the road is being used when lives depend on it. It feels as if everything is being set up to enable the situation of these people choosing to spend their last hours on the beach. Which is fine, but I did find myself nitpicking a little with the book.
Having said all that, there are moments of exquisite emotional agony here, especially in phone calls to family and in quiet moments of reflection and affection. The Cornish beach is beautifully described. The tension is maintained throughout, the mood of foreboding increases, and there were moments when I cried. It also made me think about my own life. It is such a thought-provoking scenario. So to sum up – although I did have my issues with the book they didn’t stop me reading it. In fact, I couldn’t put it down.