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Storms, drowned worlds and a paradise built in hell: the best books about flooding | Books

The earliest recorded stories of floods appear in the literature of Mesopotamia – the flood-prone territory of modern-day Iraq that the Greeks called the “land between the rivers”. “Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood, / the mayfly floating on the water,” says one couplet in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which encapsulates the idea of flooding as seasonal and sustaining. Yet it is also profoundly destructive. In an early version of the poem, inundation brings death into the world. Before it, men could die “from acts of violence, from disease and otherwise at the will of the gods, but not naturally from old age”, writes Andrew George in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition. “From the time of the Deluge onwards, death is to follow life as a matter of course.” The final version of Gilgamesh contains all the ingredients of the Noah myth: the deluge sent by a vengeful god; the righteous man who rides out the rising waters in an ark; the birds sent to look for land. Floods and storms would be read as confirmation of divine ill will for thousands of years.

Daniel Defoe said the hurricane that struck Britain on 26 November 1703 would have forced the most devout atheist “to doubt whether he was not in the Wrong”. His account of that night in The Storm is remarkable for its eyewitness reports of the devastation.

Émile Zola’s 1880 novella The Flood tells the story of a smaller but equally devastating flood in south-west France, when the river Garonne bursts its banks. The narrator – an elderly farmer called Louis Roubien – recalls how the members of his extended family slipped beneath the surface or were swept away. It is a vivid illustration of how floodwater can claim lives, as it has recently in Venice and Derbyshire, where the county’s former high sheriff was drowned.

It is not just natural forces that are a threat – official neglect may compound their effects, as Rebecca Solnit argues in A Paradise Built in Hell. When Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of New Orleans in 2005, the damage caused by what she calls the “somewhat natural disaster” of the storm was compounded by the “strictly unnatural disaster of the failing levees”. After this humanmade catastrophe came the “failure or refusal of successive layers of government to supply evacuation and relief”, which led to the “appalling calamity of the way that local and then state and federal authorities decided to regard victims as criminals and turned New Orleans into a prison city.”

The floods in south Yorkshire and Derbyshire may not be on the same scale, but people living there may also feel they have been abandoned. And the time may come when the cities of Britain are as threatened by floodwater as New Orleans was during Katrina. Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came is a precise, disturbing vision of a flooded Birmingham, which serves as a companion piece to JG Ballard’s reimagining of London as a tropical lagoon in The Drowned World. In Morrall’s dystopia, the capital of the flood-diminished country has moved to Brighton, and disease has wiped out most of the population. Those who are left depend on Washington and Beijing for food and medicine. The opportunities for preventing these visions of the future coming true are reducing; but they are not yet gone.

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