"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!'"--
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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'.