EVERY civilization has its deluge mythology. Before and after Noah set sail with his animals, flood stories have appeared in countless other versions, sacred and profane. The Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clzio played with the theme in his 1966 novel “Le Dluge,” and in 2006 the American novelist Chris Adrian set an entire medical facility adrift in “The Children’s Hospital.”

James Runcie draws from this long apocalyptic tradition in his thoughtful, “Canvey Island.” Since Runcie is the son of the former archbishop of Canterbury, he knows his Bible history.

“Canvey Island” begins on the night of the real 1953 flood of Canvey – an island of approximately 13,000 inhabitants located east of London on the Essex coast – that killed 58 people. Runcie tells the story in a sequence of first person recollections by the principal characters.

A young boy, Martin, has been left at home with his mother while his father and his aunt go to a dance on the mainland. Shortly after he’s tucked in for the night, the waters rise, quickly and without warning. While fleeing the house, his mother becomes trapped in a submerged barbed-wire fence. Unable to free her, Martin is swept away by the current and survives only by clinging to a floating coffin. By the time his father and aunt return, still in their finery, the boy’s mother has drowned.

While this opening sequence is utterly terrifying, it’s the psychic aftermath that interests Runcie. Martin is, of course, the most deeply affected.

“I imagined the sea expanding and contracting as I breathed,” he explains, “a giant presence from which I could never escape. This was what it was like to live in the shadow of ocean. It was the same as the shadow of loss. It would never rest.”

And yet, instead of developing a fear of water, Martin grows obsessed with it. In the years and decades that follow, although he leaves the island to study engineering and eventually marries a vicar’s daughter, the island keeps pulling him back.

At last, Martin can’t resist the tug of the island, where he finds the long-ago tragedy still shapes much of daily life.

“I remembered that this was how we often defined the time in which we lived,” he observes, “not ‘before the war,’ or ‘after the war,’ like everyone else in England, but ‘before the flood,’ ‘after the flood.’

“It made the island biblical.”

The novel never quite lives up to the vivid evocation of terror in its opening pages. That said, Runcie fully understands that the lingering trauma after a major disaster is often far more devastating than the disaster itself. He has written an insightful novel about the perils of survival.