Great Level


Great Level

Published 5th July 2018
Chatto & Windus


‘I am an engineer and a measured man of the world. I prefer to weigh everything in the balance, to calculate and to plan. Yet my own heart is going faster than I can now count.’ 

In 1649, Jan Brunt, a Dutchman, arrives in England to work on draining and developing the Great Level, an expanse of marsh in the heart of the fen country. It is here he meets Eliza, whose love overturns his ordered vision and whose act of resistance forces him to see the world differently. Jan flees to the New World, where the spirit of avarice is raging and his skills as an engineer are prized. Then one spring morning a boy delivers a note that prompts him to remember the Fens, and confront all that was lost there.
The Great Level is a dramatic and elemental story about two people whose differences draw them together then drive them apart. Jan and Eliza’s journeys, like the century they inhabit, are filled with conflict, hard graft and adventure – and see them searching for their own piece of solid ground.

 Select Quotes from The Great Level


When we made the Great Level we tried to draw the future on the map and then press it into the earth. We called it a new land. Yet it never truly could come into being without a reckoning with the layers beneath.
In the shade of a willow is a woman. I see her in the water, the hem of her shift loosely gathered in both hands. She does not notice me or hear anything, for at that very moment, before there is time to move or say a word, she bends forwards and pulls the garment over her head. So I see her as I have never seen a woman, her whole nakedness, half in my plain sight, half reflected in the
Now the shrieking begins, high above the roar of the water. Through the mist I see the prisoners clambering onto the roofs of their huts. I know there is nothing to be done. I have seen before, the force of water unconfined; no power on earth can stop it…
But my pleasure, though it grows when I talk of my work, has a darkening edge. It has come to me that for one world to be made, another must die. Now, as my vision begins to come into being, I am filled with sadness as well as joy. I have seen that this unimproved world has its own way of being which will be lost. It has, even, its own splendour…
I think of us together as Adam and Eve were, in Elysium, alone. I want more, though. I long also to be as Adam and Eve became: adventurers who had to discover and make the world for themselves.
I remember that night now, my happiness and the moonlight, but most of all the feel of you leaning against me, your shoulders back against my chest and all of you weighing on me, strong and warm. I can feel my arms around you, hands around your hands, the two of us one being, so it felt to me, standing in the dark on the embankment.
In the summer evening I sometimes venture out onto the meres, drawn to their shimmering expanses and impelled to present myself in plain sight, to the hidden watchers. As I glide along I sense them, silent and following, as once I sensed you…
I work never to feel again such fear as I felt that night, and never again to see such misery. Step by step I got there, measuring, planning, taking care. I have been a good engineer, and until now I have never met the flood again.