Sombre, flickering, gleaming: The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble reviewed

by Anne Else / 13 February, 2017

Margaret Drabble. Photo/Alamy

Coming to terms with her own ageing gives Margaret Drabble a deep connection with baby boomers.

In the 1960s, thousands of young baby-boomer women, including me, read Margaret Drabble’s early novels with astonished gratitude that at last a gifted writer understood them and their post-war lives. Now Drabble, like us, is coming to terms with ageing. It is, of course, the rising dark flood of the title; but that encompasses real floods, too, in the British countryside and the seas around the Canary Islands. It also evokes the swelling waves of refugees trying to escape their intolerable lives.

The promos for this book make great play with “dark” and “glittering”, but that’s far too dramatic – sombre, ­flickering, gleaming is more like it. As Drabble unfolds the interweaving stories of her cast, most of them in their ­seventies, she gently and adroitly brings them all to moving, poignant life.

The central figure is Fran, living alone in her grotty tower block – a choice she did not have to make, and one that none of her friends and family understand – and still determinedly relishing her work as an expert in assisted living for the elderly. She mourns Hamish, her lost love, looks after Claude, her bedridden ex, cherishes her lifelong friends, worries about her unhappy son and daughter, rejoices in an unexpectedly perfect soft-boiled egg and struggles to keep despair at bay.

With Fran at its heart, the complex web of connections among the cast is skilfully spun outward. So we meet Bennett and his devoted, much younger partner, Ivor, ensconced (and perhaps trapped) in their beautiful house in the Canaries, through Fran’s son Christopher, who is trying to deal with the sudden death of his partner, Sara. The quietly compelling plot focuses, as you might expect, on accident, ­illness and death, but often these occur in unpredictable ways and have unexpected consequences.

All this may sound dreadfully ­depress­ing, but it isn’t. Most of the time, what shines through these finely ­created characters and their ­trajectories is ­Drabble’s deep concern for what ­constitutes a good life, brought into sharp relief by their own or others’ ­advancing age. They may be “over the hill” or ­heading towards the end of the road, but they are still compelled to come to terms with contemporary cataclysms and ­dilemmas, as well as with their own past.

The descriptions of the Canaries are a little overdone. These small islands, with their own dark history, are not conjured up as convincingly as the apparently ordinary landscapes and cityscapes of ­contemporary England. But then ­Drabble’s almost ­unparalleled power to evoke these changing everyday settings over the past 40 years has been one of her most ­outstanding achievements as a novelist.

I don’t think anyone has written better about old age as we know it now, in both male and female guises – at least about well-educated, relatively well-heeled, thoroughly English old age. The sad fact is that successful novels about the others, particularly the older ones who voted so overwhelmingly for Brexit, are likely to remain scarce. Meanwhile, Drabble’s new work is to be welcomed, appreciated and ­celebrated.

THE DARK FLOOD RISES, by Margaret Drabble (Text, $37.99)

This article was first published in the January 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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