SUSAN RYAN. Book review. The Dark Flood Rises: Margaret Drabble.

As our sort of societies experience the demographic revolution, most of us are living much longer than ever before, in cultures that have not responded well to this increased longevity. We also find ourselves living in cultures that so far have failed to develop dignified and helpful practices and values for dealing with the inevitable.  

The Dark Flood Rises opens with a quote from DH Lawrence’s poem the Ship of Death: “Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises”, followed by W.B Yeats, the Wheel, “…what disturbs our blood … Is but its longing for the tomb.”

So, no doubt about what is to follow, and Drabble does develop narratives of people in the later years of their life when death is not too far away.

As our sort of societies experience the demographic revolution, most of us are living much longer than ever before, in cultures that have not responded well to this increased longevity. We also find ourselves living in cultures that so far have failed to develop dignified and helpful practices and values for dealing with the inevitable.

Since the 1960s, Margaret Drabble’s 17 or so novels and other writings have illuminated and followed the massive social changes affecting the lives of all of us who have now moved beyond our 7th decade. Her characters have lived out our own stories of too early marriages, often breaking down over the desire but the impossibility of young mothers to pursue life and work outside the home, through the various piecemeal efforts of women of this generation to get the kids raised, break with the wrong partners, look for more compatible ones, persist in some friendships, reconsider others, and above all get a meaningful working life .Drabble has used all this material to produce witty, observant novels of social commentary.

Her characters’ stories are our stories. She tracked our lives through the late 20th Century and now tackles the disturbing 21st.

Reliably, in her 9th decade Drabble gives us another creation, dealing with the stage many of us are at.

We follow a range of different individuals, some likable, some not, all interesting and authentic, all connected with the protagonist Francesca Stubbs, as they each approach their last years in different ways, usually reflecting how they have always lived.

Francesca, 70, still drives her clapped out car around the UK, working as an inspector of aged care facilities. She finds engagement and amusement staying in awful cheap motels in the regions, informed by regional TV and experimenting with bad motel food. She deals with new people as she needs to get her job done, and she does this, but in an increasingly shambolic way. She maintains or re-establishes personal connections, including providing meals and company to her awful first husband, now in bed ridden luxury listening to Maria Callas and cared for by a beautiful young afro woman. Another friend, a retired academic, plans carefully- nothing shambolic here- and moves all of herself into a classy retirement village. She is determined that she will keep the last years controlled and comfortable, engaged in her kind of cultural activities. Francesca supports another friend through terminal cancer.

In the Canaries, on Lanzarote island, an ageing important gay antiquarian has created a stylish exotic island paradise home and a small empathic community where he is supported by his much younger lover. But for how long when climate change volcanoes and medical emergencies interrupt paradise and home is a long way away?

Francesca makes herself attempt a reconciliation with her daughter, a dour environmentalist living in a remote cottage in Britain’s south west.

The stories resonate. The characters are brilliantly realised and recognisable.

But there is much more than the personal, much more than just the entertaining accounts of middle class English people in their last years. Francesca’s world is also dealing with climate change, affecting the UK badly now, and of course the floods of millions of refugees fleeing violence and war, from Morocco and other African hell holes. These are dark floods too and they are also rising.

This novel is not a downer. Individuals in our sorts of societies can and do make choices as to how to keep living in their final years. Some choose to continue to do what they have always done, like Francesca: working, abandoning caution, living where she chooses, continuing to drink a lot of wine (but not when driving), doing things for others that seems right but without sentimentality. This approach, not approved by family or society, is risky. She might crash her car, or she might get stranded and drown in a climate change flood. People do. But the careful way, as chosen by the former academic in the posh retirement home, offers no guarantees.

In Australia, the force of growing numbers of older people, the effects of medical technology, and the absence of accepted approaches to death have reignited calls for euthanasia laws, and state governments are responding. It is easy to understand why physician assisted dying is supported by many contemplating the final stages.

But there is also Francesca’s approach, “She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in this world, will be ‘You bloody old fool”. She is not in my books a fool at all, but a person who has decided to keep living on her own terms as far as she can, and take risks.

Dribble’s novel is well worth a read. It will inform and entertain and provoke thoughts we all need to pursue, even over summer.

The Dark Flood Rises: Margaret Drabble, Text publishing company 2016

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