Vir­ginia Mof­fatt on her book The Wave

I’ve been very ner­vous about how read­ers will re­spond to a novel about fac­ing death while they’re wor­ried also about an ill­ness that might take their life or the life of a loved one.

Vancouver Sun - - WEEK­END RE­VIEW - JAMIE PORTMAN

The Wave Vir­ginia Mof­fatt Harper­collins

The char­ac­ters in Bri­tish writer Vir­ginia Mof­fatt’s new dooms­day novel are at na­ture’s mercy. A dev­as­tat­ing tidal wave is on its way and they see no hope of es­cape.

But real life has caught up with this book. Mof­fatt cer­tainly didn’t an­tic­i­pate that her grip­ping tale would be ar­riv­ing in a Canada caught up in a pan­demic cri­sis. The world was a calmer place when The Wave was pub­lished in Bri­tain last au­tumn to favourable re­views, with its pub­lish­ers, Harper­collins, look­ing for­ward to an equally re­cep­tive au­di­ence when the book moved over­seas at the end of March.

Then the coro­n­avirus in­ter­vened, which left Mof­fatt won­der­ing whether it would ef­fec­tively cut short the life of her lat­est novel, a work she feels pas­sion­ate about.

“I’ve been very ner­vous about how read­ers will re­spond to a novel about fac­ing death while they’re wor­ried also about an ill­ness that might take their life or the life of a loved one,” she says from her home in Ox­ford, Eng­land.

But then she started re­ceiv­ing re­as­sur­ing re­sponses from read­ers.

“I re­cently had an email from some­one who found the book re­ally help­ful. She thought it was very much a book about now and very much a book we should be talk­ing about.”

In the novel, a vol­cano thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away trig­gers a tsunami that is head­ing re­lent­lessly to­ward the west of Eng­land, with the county of Corn­wall di­rectly in the line of as­sault. Gov­ern­ment de­fences are fo­cused else­where on more pop­u­lous ar­eas, largely forc­ing in­hab­i­tants of this iso­lated penin­sula to fend for them­selves. And be­cause there is no easy exit to safety, many are trapped.

Faced with this ter­ri­fy­ing re­al­ity, a young woman named Poppy posts a mes­sage on Face­book: “With nowhere to go, I’m head­ing to my favourite beach to watch the sun­set. Who wants to join me?” Even­tu­ally five more peo­ple join her. And as they do so, they also must come to terms with their own some­times messy lives.

“How do we face death and how do we deal with it in a good way?” Mof­fatt asks now. “I wrote this book be­cause I wanted us to think about those things. But I did it within the con­text of a world that is nor­mal. A pan­demic raises that con­text in a mega way and it’s af­fect­ing ev­ery­body.

“This is quite a scary time, so I hope now that if peo­ple read it, they will say — yes, this is scary but there is a pos­si­bil­ity of hope in our sit­u­a­tion, a pos­si­bil­ity of love in our sit­u­a­tion, and the pos­si­bil­ity of leav­ing this world in a pos­i­tive way ...”

When she first talked to Post­media in Eng­land in the au­tumn, Mof­fatt re­jected any sug­ges­tion that The Wave be­longed in the “dis­as­ter novel” cat­e­gory.

“I don’t think it is a dis­as­ter novel,” she said flatly. “It def­i­nitely has el­e­ments of a dis­as­ter novel and it also has el­e­ments of a thriller. But to me it’s also a novel about peo­ple fac­ing death, which is com­ing to us all. And if you know it’s com­ing, how do you spend that fi­nal time?

“Peo­ple can call the book what they like, but I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant to peo­ple read­ing this that they don’t see it as your usual kind of dis­as­ter story be­cause I’m not re­ally in­ter­ested in them try­ing to get away. I’m in­ter­ested in what hap­pens if they can’t get away.”

The Wave rep­re­sents a marked de­par­ture from Mof­fatt’s pre­vi­ous novel, Echo Hall, which deals with three gen­er­a­tions of women who ex­pe­ri­ence love and loss and the trauma of war. “It was some­thing of a his­tor­i­cal drama,” Mof­fatt says, “and as I was fin­ish­ing it, I was think­ing about what I wanted to write next.”

The an­swer came through her in­volve­ment in the on­line writ­ing com­mu­nity Fri­day Flash, in which mem­bers reg­u­larly share sam­ples of their writ­ing with oth­ers in the group. Mof­fatt had con­trib­uted a “flash fic­tion” piece — mean­ing it had to be un­der 1,000 words — about a group of peo­ple un­able to es­cape a tsunami.

She’d writ­ten the piece quickly, but the cen­tral sit­u­a­tion lin­gered in her mind. “I couldn’t leave that story. It just stayed with me.” So she went to work on a full-length novel, con­fronting prob­lems quite dif­fer­ent from those Echo Hall had posed.

“I had to move from a story struc­ture that ex­tends over a long pe­riod of time to one that takes 24 hours,” she says, “which is a very dif­fer­ent sort of chal­lenge for a writer.”

She ended up with “a very messy first draft” that forced her to seek more fo­cus and make some tough de­ci­sions — in­clud­ing dump­ing two char­ac­ters. “I had to cull a cou­ple I re­ally liked,” she says, “but they just weren’t go­ing to work.”

If The Wave some­times reads like a taut thriller, it’s be­cause of this au­thor’s in­ter­est in how hu­man be­ings be­have in a cri­sis.

“I’ve worked in so­cial care for many years, so I have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence with peo­ple be­ing in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions and be­ing able to help peo­ple get to a dif­fer­ent place in their life,” Mof­fatt says. “And that does make for a more dra­matic story — where you put peo­ple in a sit­u­a­tion where they will be tested and tried. I’m in­ter­ested in peo­ple who are re­ally up against it — and in how they want to be re­mem­bered.”

So is there a spir­i­tual di­men­sion un­der­ly­ing this story? Mof­fatt, a prac­tis­ing Chris­tian who has also writ­ten a Len­ten man­ual and is cur­rently edit­ing a se­ries of Bi­ble study guides, is care­ful in her an­swer.

“These char­ac­ters are dis­parate peo­ple. Most peo­ple in Bri­tain to­day do not pro­fess a faith at all, and that’s the sit­u­a­tion with most of these peo­ple on the beach. But they all have ques­tions — af­ter all, it is hu­man na­ture to ask what are we here for? Even if you don’t be­lieve in God, you want to think there is some pur­pose to your life.”

How do we face death and how do we deal with it in a good way? I wrote this book be­cause I wanted us to think about those things. But I did it within the con­text of a world that is nor­mal. A pan­demic raises that con­text in a mega way ... Vir­ginia Mof­fatt

HARPER­COLLINS

“It def­i­nitely has el­e­ments of a dis­as­ter novel and it also has el­e­ments of a thriller,” au­thor Vir­ginia Mof­fatt says of her book, The Wave.

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