That universal patriarch Noah has finally been rumbled. Children's versions of the Bible usually overlook the fact that this genial figure was also a drunkard sometimes capable of throwing off all his clothes, to the huge embarrassment of his family. But modern fiction goes further. Four years ago, Geraldine McCaughrean's Not the End of the World showed him as a cultist grimly enjoying the spectacle of the mass drowning around him as he and his family escape.
Now Sam Taylor's extraordinary novel The Island at the End of the World takes his story further into darkness. Transformed into a 21st-century survivalist and religious maniac living in isolation after total war, this Noah is a murderous liar and also, as his adolescent daughter puts it, a tyrant and a spy.
This is the author's third novel, and like his preceding two it is meticulously written and vividly imagined. Told in diary form, it alternates between accounts by eight-year old Finn, his older sister Alice, and their tormented Pa himself.
Finn has a shaky hold on spelling, as befits an unschooled child, and puzzling out some of his "a nuffs" and "a gens" demands patience. Pa in his turn often lards his diary entries with gnomic Biblical and Shakespearean references before his writing gets wilder as the drink takes hold, sometimes ending in torrents of obscenities.
But, in both cases, it is worth readers making the effort. The ingenuity with which Taylor re-invents other details taken from the book of Genesis is striking. The Tree of Knowledge holds a secret that is genuinely both wonderful and terrible; the Snake, in the shape of Alice's cousin Will, the invader of her father's water-locked territory, awakens the girl's sexual desire as an irreversible act of filial disobedience.
As for his modern Noah, like the best fictional villains he evokes some pity as well as disgust. Abandoned by a wife unable to stand the solitude of their self-imposed exile, in revolt against the evils of a consumerist world which had no time for him once he had opted out, he works hard and effectively for his children.
The world he re-creates does indeed contain elements of paradise, with its brilliant blooms and happily co-existing domestic animals. But physical isolation becomes more stifling the longer it continues to stay unchallenged. This Noah's compulsive need always to stay in charge demands that his children never grow into the fuller knowledge of themselves and others that is their right. What happens once they finally do so forms the climax to this memorable story.
Nicholas Tucker co-wrote 'The Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers'Reuse content