Margaret Drabble’s first novels, published in the 1960s, were brightly told tales about clever women venturing into academia or extramarital affairs. By the ’80s, her fiction had shifted to wide-angle views of intellectual communities in contemporary London or Cambridge, usually peopled by mid-career women. Drabble’s characters have continued to age along with her, and she brings her attention (and her wit) to the quality of aging as experienced by a group of friends approaching their 80s in her latest novel (her 19th!), The Dark Flood Rises.
Feisty Fran Stubbs is at the center of this mordant and thought-provoking work. Still independent and living alone, she is employed by a nonprofit researching senior-living accommodations. She delivers home-cooked meals to her mostly homebound ex-husband, Claude, and worries about her two adult children, Christopher and Poppet. Also in her orbit are old friends pursuing different solutions to retirement: Scholarly rake Bennet and his younger partner Ivor live a comfortable expat existence in the Canary Islands, and Josephine, a former neighbor from when both women were young mothers, now lives in a planned community for retired academics.
There is not much plot in The Dark Flood Rises. Friends meet, have drinks, exchange gossip. There are accidents, hospital stays, reminiscences and two funerals, one expected, the other a surprise. Fran stays on the go, crisscrossing England in her mostly reliable car, at her happiest when spending the night in a comfortable room in a mid-level hotel chain. If she ponders anything, it’s how she can best ensure a good death for herself and her loved ones. Behind this web of aging and personal relationships, looming environmental and political disasters threaten to transform the only England she has ever known.
In one of Josephine’s adult-ed classes, the students discuss the possibility of a Late Style—the form or manner an artist’s work takes late in life. Though one might think resolution and clarity best reflect the aged creative mind, an equal argument can be made for tenacity, intractability and a certain comfort with contradiction, all of which are found in this novel. More witty than morbid, The Dark Flood Rises may not be for everyone, but this wise assessment of aging by one of England’s most respected writers deserves our readerly attention.