Margaret Drabble
The Dark Flood Rises

Back in 2009, Margaret Drabble announced her retirement from fiction writing because, as quoted in The Guardian, “the line between writing and remembering and thinking is  more blurred for me than it used to be”. Since then, she’s published The Pure Gold Baby (2013) and now The Dark Flood Rises. Both these novels are intimately concerned with Drabble’s preoccupations. She’s changed her mind, perhaps, because she has something important to tell us.

There is a literal dark flood in Drabble’s novel but it’s minor and, besides, it’s the metaphorical ones that interest her. Her husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd, is a patron of Britain’s Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) and Drabble herself wrote a moving opinion piece in 2014 titled “When it’s time to go, let me go, with a nice glass of whisky and a pleasing pill”. This year has seen a number of wonderful books exploring death, including Leah Kaminsky’s We’re All Going to Die, the late Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir, and Steven Amsterdam’s novel The Easy Way Out, but Drabble’s dark flood is threefold. Most important is the control or lack thereof in the ageing and death of individuals, but she’s also interested in the global refugee crisis and the environmental and tectonic instability of the planet. The Dark Flood Rises is largely a series of meditations that explains and explores the differing world views and ethical and practical choices of (many) characters as they face old age and death. 

Drabble’s central character is seventysomething Fran Stubbs, an expert in sheltered housing for the aged. Fran won’t stop working, driving and travelling, as if she can postpone the inevitable if only she keeps moving. Her relentless nervous energy makes her a great choice in this book about people winding down. It’d be hard going without her.  

Her ex-husband, self-centred retired surgeon Claude, is dying expensively at home, with an attractive hired immigrant carer for him to make passes at and Fran to cook and deliver his meals. Her daughter, environmental worker Poppet, is a recluse living in a country cottage and monitoring the death of the planet online. Her son, arts journalist Christopher, is in the Canary Islands to finalise details of his late fiancée, Sara, who died unexpectedly while they were recently visiting for her documentary project on refugees. He’s staying with couple Bennett and Ivor, who’ve taken the expat warm-climate affordable-labour option. Bennett is an elderly acclaimed writer very close to the end; Ivor is a younger man who finds himself as carer. There are many more, including Fran’s best friends, optimistic dying Teresa and intelligent caring Josephine and her dutiful co-worker Paul, responsible for his demented aunt Dorothy. The character connections are like a web – people know each other in surprising ways, with few degrees of separation. 

As Fran investigates various aged-care facilities and sets out their strengths and weaknesses, it feels as though Drabble is less a novelist and more an end-of-life consultant, thoughtfully laying out the possible mindsets and living solutions for readers’ consideration. At home with private care, “Well heeled, well padded, well attended, well pensioned and retired from stress: bored, with the unalleviated boredom of inert old age, but comfortable”, like Claude? Or perhaps the full-service model, a “pretentious and expensive retirement home, built to give its residents the illusion that they are living in a Cambridge college”, like Josephine? Fran’s “inspections of evolving models of residential care and care homes for the elderly have made her aware of the infinitely clever and complex and inhumane delays and devices we create to avoid and deny death, to avoid fulfilling our destiny and arriving at our destination”. Fran herself has opted to live alone in a brutal high-rise flat with a “bad address, a bad postcode, [where] the lifts often break down”, but the very lack of ease makes her feel alive.

And how should we consider death philosophically, when we are faced with it? Fran’s daughter Poppet is cheered by the hope that the final demise of the Earth will be caused by something inherent in its geology, rather than the fault of humans. Uncounted numbers of refugees wash ashore on the beaches of the Canaries and their deaths seem pointedly unimportant compared with the deaths of the white, middle-class characters: all too realistically, there’s a lot of tsking but little else. Teresa half hopes to go in her sleep, but believes this to be cowardice. She discovers “that both pain and trivia can be a welcome distraction from the ultimately serious business of dying”. There’s no judgement here on Drabble’s part, except perhaps for the idea that it’s the choice itself that matters, and everyone should have the freedom to make it without interference. Her characters hold on while waiting for loved ones; they are misled for their own good; they accept and they struggle. There are ethereal, beautiful declines and sudden ones. Every one of them rings true as exemplary character studies.

Whether The Dark Flood Rises succeeds as a novel, though, rests upon how a reader considers plot. This is a thoughtful and deep book if you don’t read for the story. Nothing happens for scores of pages and the voice is rambling, distant and telling. There are plenty of literary and academic allusions and there’s hardly any dialogue because hardly anyone speaks: everyone is explained and explored by Drabble but we rarely see any of her characters in action. 

“Ageing is ...,” Fran thinks to herself, “... a fascinating journey into the unknown.” And later, she sees “a lifespan as a journey, indeed as a pilgrimage … A life has a destination, an ending, a last saying.” It is a destination for which most of us are unprepared. Drabble’s skill and insight are undeniable but the ideas behind The Dark Flood Rises might have been better developed in some other form than the novel. Regardless, her sharp intelligence and the wisdom of her remarkable life are laid out clearly and provokingly here. You could not find a better guide for the final journey.  LS

Text, 320pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 5, 2016 as "Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: LS