The Dark Flood Rises: A Novel

by Margaret Drabble

Hardcover, 2017

Call number





Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2017), Edition: 1St Edition, 336 pages


"A magnificently mordant reckoning with mortality by the great British novelist Francesca Stubbs has a very full life. A highly regarded expert on housing for the elderly who is herself getting on in age, she drives restlessly round England, which is 'her last love'. She wants to 'see it all before she dies'. Amid the professional conferences she attends, she fits in visits to old friends, brings home-cooked dinners to her ex-husband, texts her son, who is grieving over the sudden death of his girlfriend, and drops in on her daughter, a quirky young woman who lives in a floodplain in the West Country. The space between vitality and morality suddenly seems narrow, but Fran is not ready to settle yet, with a 'cat upon her knee'. She still prizes her 'frisson of autonomy', her belief in herself as a dynamic individual doing meaningful work in the world. This dark and glittering novel moves back and forth between an interconnected group of family and friends in England and a seemingly idyllic expat community in the Canary Islands. It is set against a backdrop of rising flood tides in Britain and the seismic fragility of the Canaries, where we also observe the flow of immigrants from an increasingly war-torn Middle East. With Margaret Drabble's characteristic wit and deceptively simple prose, The Dark Flood Rises enthralls, entertains, and asks existential questions in equal measure. Of course, there is undeniable truth in Francesca's insight: 'Old age, it's a fucking disaster!'"--… (more)

Library's review

Drabble has a very interesting tone. Distanced and dry, yet sparks of compassion here and there. I found this to be, at times, a moving examination of death (approaching it, contemplating it, analyzing it, experiencing the loss of others). I was left with no new insights, but an affirmation of basic Buddhist truths (concerning impermanence and suffering), through a very Western lens. (Brian)… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member BLBera
The Dark Flood Rises drew me in from the first lines: "She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in this world will prove to be 'You bloody old fool' or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, 'You fucking idiot." Fran Stubbs, in her seventies, is struggling to stay busy and relevant in a world that tends to dismiss the elderly. She still works, inspecting senior care facilities. Her work takes her all over England. She has also begun to care for her dying ex-husband.

In fact, a lot of Fran's friends are dying, a hazard as one hits one's seventies. In the course of the novel, we meet Fran's friends and connections, all aging in various ways. This wonderful novel shows the challenges as one gets older. Should one continue to drive? Should one move to a retirement community? All of these are questions that arise; each person answers differently. Toward the end of the novel, after the death of some friends, Fran wonders whether she can keep it up: "She's in despair, but she can't help but be a little interested in what is going on out there, and the manner in which it's being relayed to her. It's part of her and she's part of it. Her life has been full of failure and defeat and triviality and small concerns, and at times she fears it is ending sadly. Her courage is running out, her energy is running out. She has lived vicariously, in the small concerns of others. The larger themes are leaving her."

This is a wonderful, honest novel. It shows the variations of aging and gives one hope that one can age with dignity.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Perhaps not surprisingly, Drabble's latest book turns out to be about old age and death, but not - if that makes any sense - in a morbid way. Exactly as we would expect, it is full of clear, witty observation, complicated cultural references, and sharp social critique.

The title is a metaphor borrowed from D.H. Lawrence's poem "The ship of death", and, Drabble being Drabble, a metaphor has to be realised explicitly in the text, so of course we do get an actual flood, but (Drabble being Drabble) she's just teasing us. The literal flood - and the earthquake, there's one of those as well - turn out not to be the drivers of the plot that they would have been in a Lawrence novel, but merely symbolic background.

The central character, Francesca, is a woman in her seventies who still does consultancy work for a fictional version of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reviewing housing projects for the elderly, but there's also a separate plot line involving an elderly, distinguished, gay British Hispanist, Bennett, who lives in the Canary Islands with his younger partner Ivor, which allows Drabble to bring in ideas about the history and culture of the islands, the arrival of refugees there from the Western Sahara, and (peripherally) the Spanish Civil War. A rather more sophisticated treatment of the Canary Islands than you get in your average holiday novel!

There are a few little in-jokes for readers of Drabble's previous novels tucked into the text, including the odd cameo appearance by a character we remember from thirty or more years ago. And some minor characters who sound as though they might be thinly-disguised versions of the recently-deceased whom we would probably recognise if we lived in Highgate and went to the right sort of parties...

I hope that this isn't Drabble's last novel, but if it should turn out to be that, she will have ended on a very good note. Just a shame that she didn't manage to prevent her publishers slapping on a boring generic black-and-white-photo-of-small-child cover that has no relevance to the content of the book. Perhaps they ran out of headless women?
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LibraryThing member janeajones
The Dark Flood Rises is a rather melancholic book although suffused with wit and sardonic social commentary. The reader senses that Drabble know that this may well be her last novel -- it has an air of finality about it. I started reading early Drabble in my late twenties when she was chronicling the difficulties of balancing career, marriage and children as was I. Now, in my retirement, I am reading about retired professionals coping with life in their seventies -- it's been a long journey.

Francesca Stubbs, divorced with two grown children, continues to consult with a senior housing authority, periodically driving around England.
This is her story along with that of her friends and others with one degree of separation. Her friend Jo, a retired literature lecturer who continues to teach one adult class per semester, lives in a comfortable retirement community in Cambridge, is also friendly with Owen, a retired professor researching the sublimity of clouds in literature. Owen, in turn, is friends with the renowned Italian art scholar, Bennett, and his companion Ivor, whom he has visited in their carefully chosen retirement home in the Canaries. Bennett and Ivor are also connected to Fran through her son Christopher, whom they aided when his companion Sarah became suddenly ill and subsequently died. Teresa, a childhood friend, is suffering from terminal cancer. Fran's ex-husband, Claude, a retired surgeon, has become housebound, and Fran supplies him with home-cooked meals.

There is not a plot, per se, in the novel, rather an accounting of their day-to-day lives over a period of about two months. The characters deal with problems of the day -- refugees from Africa, a minor earthquake, the effects of climate change, and, of course, the conundrum of dealing with a burgeoning aging population.

I enjoyed the revealing of the characters, and as always, Drabble's sharp observations. The oddest thing I found about the book is the total lack of direct dialogue. I do recommend it to anyone interested in the aging process.
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LibraryThing member bfister
I once had read every novel Margaret Drabble wrote. In fact, I was planning to write my master's thesis on her work but was persuaded not to. I haven't read the last six or so of her novels, but found the theme of this one interesting. Old age and the approach of death isn't typical fare for fiction. Here, we meet friends and family members in England and living the expat life in the Canary Islands, bound together by filaments of connection. An aging academic and his younger devoted but tied down companion, a woman who keeps almost frantically busy driving around the country writing reports on care homes, her contented and hedonistic ex who doesn't seem to mind being disabled so long as women take care of him, a child whose partner has died suddenly in youth. Another offspring is, like an adult child in The Realms of Gold, devoted to charting the coming environmental catastophe, and the landscape and mood reflects that in the landscape and the news heard off stage. Joined to that disaster approaching from the periphery is a cleft in the floor of the ocean, threatening to create a tsunami. All of the characters are thinking about the end approaching them, or doing what they can to avoid thinking about it. This sounds dreary, but I found their lives and the underlying mood of things coming to their natural end very engaging.

I was surprised how familiar it felt. Her style remains fluid, chatty, liable to slide among characters and perspectives easily and intimately, with occasional asides from the author (who, at one point, says it's none of our business what one of the characters is thinking about a particular topic). They are all English and well-educated and white and not likely to bother translating the occasional French bon mot and so they are in a way a vanishing generation of privilege, and that was a bit startling. Drabble has always been aware of class and gender, and of North and southern England, not so much racial or ethnic diversity. She is, in many ways, an olf-fashioned novelist and her ending wraps things up the way many 19th century novels do. Perhaps that's particularly appropriate for a book about endings.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
The dark flood of which Margaret Drabble writes is, of course, aging and death. This novel examines a number of ways in which this tide can be met as various seventy-somethings live their waning years. Fran still works, driving all around England (which she wishes to see all of before she dies) as an inspector of the various institutions where old people live, as well as making plated dinners for her ex, who is dying in comfort. Her friend Josephine lives in an apartment complex for retired academics; she still teaches literature for adults. Teresa is dying, not so much in comfort, of asbestos in her lungs. She relies on opiates and her faith in God to get her through. Meanwhile, down in the Canary Islands, Bennet has a large house and a long time live in companion. He lives stylishly until a fall, caused by an earthquake, rattles his brain. He will live out his life well cared for, but what will become of his partner, Ivor, when Bennet dies? There is no one to take care of him. In this tale, as in life, death does not only come to the aged; Fran’s son loses his lover to fast moving cancer. Fran’s daughter lives in a flood plain and monitors the world’s ecological problems as water, quite literally, rises.

There is not much in the way of plot. This is more of a philosophical novel; have these people lived good and useful lives? What does it mean to age with dignity? The characters are very well drawn; Drabble obviously cares for these people (she is in her late 70s herself, and so may be looking at her own circle) There is a sub-topic of another form a dark flood that is rising: the immigrants flooding in from Africa and the Middle-East, and the xenophobia that they are greeted with by white people.

The book is thoughtful, but not uplifting; neither is it gloomy despite the subject. It’s humorous in places; neither sharp wit nor irony fade with age. One bit that jarred was the ending; after slowly moving through a few months, suddenly years are compressed into a few paragraphs. Although now that I think about it, time does seem to work that way; in our youth time seems unlimited, while now, in old age, it seems to fly with frightening rapidity. Five stars.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
I used to read a lot of Margaret Drabble when I was in my 20's and 30's, when she wrote about women in their 20's and 30's, and I enjoyed her very much. Then, for some reason, I put her aside for many, many years. And now she is writing about women in their 60's and 70's (my age), and I have rediscovered her. Last year I read and enjoyed The Witch of Exmoor, and now I have read and enjoyed The Dark Flood Rises. Perhaps I need to track down her middle-age novels.

Both The Witch of Exmoor and The Dark Flood Rises involve the theme of how we confront aging, with strong female protagonists. Here, Francesca Stubbs is in her 70's, divorced with 2 adult children. She is an expert in housing for the elderly, which primarily involves driving around England to conferences and to visit housing facilities. The story, without too much of a plot, moves among Francesca's interconnected family and friends. Her son is recovering from the death of his fiancée, a documentary film maker, and is spending time in the Canary Islands with a group of British expats including a May/December gay couple facing the decline of the elderly partner. Francesca's daughter is a sort of hippy, Earth-Mother type living in the countryside on a flood plain, concerned with global warming. One of Francesca's friends, Josephine, lives a contented life in Cambridge teaching literature to adults. Francesca has also just reconnected with a childhood friend who is in the final stages of a terminal cancer. Francesca's ex-husband, with whom she maintains a friendly relationship, is also in ill health, and is housebound.

Nothing much happens--it's just life day-by-day--but Drabble paints a compelling portrait of what it means to grow old.

3 1/2 stars
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LibraryThing member bookomaniac
You should not read this if you are approaching the age of 60, 70 or 80. And actually, perhaps you should not read this if you are younger. Because the gloominess of aging and approaching death are omnipresent in this book. Margaret Drabble (76 when she wrote this) has woven a whole network of characters around the 70 year old Fran Stubbs, both in the United Kingdom and in the Canary Islands, because those islands are apparently have become the Florida of the older Brit.

Protagonist Fran is an interesting figure: she is a very active senior, one who, against all odds, continues to tour hyperactively as a prospector of housing facilities for older people. She constantly muses about the physical and mental decline, the approaching end and the different ways in which peers deal with it. “Inspection of evolving models or residential care and care homes for the elderly have made 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. And the result, in so many cases, has been that we arrive in good spirits, as we say our last farewells and greet the afterlife, but senseless, incontinent, demented, medicated into amnesia, aphasia, indignity. Old fools, who didn't have the courage to have that last whiskey and set their bed on fire with a last cigarette.”

It is striking that Drabble does not really deliver a story with a plot: she jumps back and forth between the characters, lets them experience all kinds of rather unpleasant things, and makes them constantly worry about more or less the same concerns. It is striking that the characters throughout the novel sometimes literally formulate the same reflections over and over again, as if Drabble wanted to give us a realistic view of the repetitive in older life. It is only at the very end that a few, unfortunately rather predictable, tragic developments follow shortly after each other. Also stylistically Drabble dares to vary a lot with sometimes nice dialogues, some long descriptive passages, a few action scenes, a lot of worrying, and occasional passages in which the author addresses the reader directly. And then there is of course the geographical jump between the UK and the Canary Islands, with even a short digression to the Western Sahara.

Beware: it is not that this book is drenched in gloom; the tone regularly is very light-hearted, somewhat rippling and even ironic-sarcastic. But the whole novel lacks some editing; Drabble constantly introduces new characters, extensive tourist and historical digressions on places in the UK and in the Canary Islands, and she also repeatedly refers to very current issues such as global warming and the refugee crisis. In my opinion, with that very diverse cocktail she drowns her central theme. I also noticed that all her figures come from the upper middle class and have a professional background in the academic, artistic and literary world; that naturally limits the scope of this novel a lot.

Yet the figure of Fran, with her many contradictory feelings, appeals: she still lives as an active fifty something (she drives recklessly with her car, and intentionally moves into a residential tower in a marginal neighbourhood), but at the same time she has fits of desperation ("let there be light, oh Lord, let there be light") but suppresses them. Throughout the novel, the reality of inexorably aging confronts her with the facts of reality, but she continues to fight against it. “She's got to keep going. There is nothing else to do. You keep going until you can go any further. And you can't count on the perfect death, at the end of the run.” In moments of doubt, she continues to hope to put down a great show: “Maybe, at the end, what we need most, in order to make a good exit, is applause. Applause, in a showy part. Going out bravely”

In short, even though this novel drowns in just a little too many storylines and elaborations, it still contains quite a lot of valuable stuff to consider. So maybe it is good that you read this when you approach 60, 70 or 80, or maybe even before. Do not say that you have not been warned.
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LibraryThing member jody12
Once it was established that this month’s book was not selected in an ‘age related’ context, we had a great discussion concerning aging populations, communities, institutions and end of life choices. Drabble’s protagonist, Fran, takes us along on a somewhat melancholy (some would even say morbid) trip down memory lane in which she recaps and reminisces events in her life in an attempt to hold back the ‘rising flood’ of age. Still working and taking an active approach to caring for others, Fran finds herself struggling with the day to day concerns of growing older … but thankfully, not without some humour.

Generally our group praised the writing style, albeit at different levels (from great to okay), and felt the realism of both characters and society’s views on aging were extremely accurate … in fact, ‘accurate’ was used as a description for the story overall.

There was discussion on the structure and why Drabble played with several different storylines and did they intertwine or overlap in a philosophic sense. A few of us found ourselves searching further with some of the art and poetry references and others did a little more investigation on Drabble herself, discovering that she is the estranged sister of award winning author A. S. Byatt.

Mostly though we were more interested in Fran herself … her choices, relationships and where she found life was going to take her from here. In short, I guess you could say we all related to Fran in some way and decided that, like her, we would not over think the ‘age thing’ and instead face it head on with a smile (or at least a smirk) on our face.

Dapto Tuesday Book Club
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LibraryThing member Steve38
Middle class friends and acquaintances age and muse about dying. It worries none of them. Everyone manages easily. But it makes them reflect. A novel about the inner self rather than the physicality of age and death. Well enough done but musings rather than deep thought.
LibraryThing member tandah
I love Margaret Drabble's writing ... you get a little story through a character's thoughts, or a conversation, or a narrative ... and then next section we're two weeks on in another part of the country or the world ... and so on - and you get the story in pieces, often from different perspectives.

Most of the characters were intriguing, though I found Fran's wilful stubbornness aggravating ... why live in such a miserable apartment, why drive when you know you shouldn't - but it seems standing still is death. Anyway, regardless, just makes me want to read another Drabble book.

'The Dark Flood Rises' is a lovely contrast with her 1965 novel, 'The Millstone'.
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