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Book review: Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises is about staring death in the face

Death stalks Margaret Drabble’s latest novel in which an elderly woman contemplates her life’s end.
Margaret Drabble, the author of The Dark Flood Rises. Getty Images
Margaret Drabble, the author of The Dark Flood Rises. Getty Images

Margaret Drabble’s latest novel is drenched with death: with fear of death, with longing for death, with heroic deaths, with death as a prompt for metaphysical speculation and moral rumination – and with the effects on our natures of the relentless passing of time.

It opens with two epigraphs: one from DH Lawrence’s poem The Ship of Death, in which mortality figures as a “dark flood” rising; another from WB Yeats’s poem The Wheel, in which our dissatisfaction with today and our unrestful longings for tomorrow, are characterised as a symptom of our sublimated “longing for the tomb”.

With these themes of fear and yearning in place, Drabble opens the novel proper by introducing to us to the figure of Francesca Stubbs, a woman who is in her 70s, conscious that she is nearing the end of her life, and who works for a charitable trust investigating living arrangements for the elderly. When she is not working, Fran tends to an array of friends and former loved ones who are ageing, suffering, drifting towards their final moments.

She is surprised to have “become a carer of sorts and a provider of sorts for her former husband Claude, whom she had divorced in a fit of self-righteous rage nearly half a century ago. She spends a lot of time running across London to his flat with plated meals”.

She is pleased to be “enjoying a curious last fling of intimacy” with an old friend who has re-entered her life after decades of separation and forgetfulness”, and who is “dying with such style and commitment that Fran is deeply impressed and encouraged by this last passage”.

And she thinks admiringly of her oldest friend, Josephine, a retired academic who, while not dying, “has met Old Age half way and is determined to make friends with her”.

In addition to these spurs to eschatological speculation and biographical reflection, there are Fran’s children, Christopher and Poppet, with whom she has a troubled relationship. Christopher’s partner has recently died, young and suddenly, which induces a grief in Fran which is real but qualified, partial, and constitutes one of the many instances in the novel that cause her to meditate on the increasing selfishness of the elderly.

Forgetting her son’s distress over breakfast at one of her beloved Premier Inns, she reflects: “As we age ... we become more selfish. We live for our appetites. Or that’s one way of looking at ageing. Old people are very selfish, very greedy.”

There is little in the novel that we might think of as plot. Fran travels around the country, staying in cheap hotels, in order to report on an array of residential institutions whose elderly inhabitants are “softly wandering in their own wits”.

But there is plenty to think about. Fran’s obsession with death yields a great deal of rich, contradictory, and stimulating contemplation. She has a passion for collecting last words. She experiences a kind of “metaphysical defiance” that causes her to long to be present at the end of the world, to “know it was all over, the whole bang stupid pointless unnecessarily painful experiment. An asteroid could do it ... or any other impartial inhuman violent act of the earth or the universe. She can’t understand the human race’s desire to perpetuate itself, to go on living at all costs. She has never been able to understand it”.

And she dreams of suicide, of “embarking on one of those acts of reckless folly that will bring the whole thing to a rapid, perhaps a sensational ending”. “What,” she wonders, “would the balance sheet look like, at the last reckoning?”

Elements of this can feel directionless and laborious, and these feelings are intensified by Drabble’s prose. Fran’s thoughts are almost always energetic and interesting, but the voice in which Drabble articulates them lacks life and resonance (“But that was neither here nor there”; “That would shake things up a bit”; “This was his neck of the woods”; “It’s on the chilly side”).

This sits awkwardly with the force of life that is to be found in Fran’s more mundane passions (her love of regional TV, her wish to see all of England before she dies, her delight in budget hotels), and makes the book as a whole feel aesthetically inappropriate to its theme.

Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review.

Updated: November 17, 2016 04:00 AM