Sunday, May 7, 2017

"The Dark Flood Rises," by Margaret Drabble

The dark floods in English writer Margaret Drabble’s latest novel, “The Dark Flood Rises” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), refer to the inevitability of illness and death, as well as the current seeming inevitability of rising waters encroaching on dry lands in this time of climate change. The part about climate change is important, but not discussed in a didactic or apocalyptic way. The part about aging is also so important, and is portrayed and discussed more directly. The main character, Fran, is in her early seventies, and works as a sort of consultant and supervisor for residences for aging people in England. She feels the encroachment of old age herself, but being fortunate enough to be healthy (although with some slowing down), she likes continuing to work, feeling the work is important, and also feeling more engaged with the world than she would if she were retired. She has a fairly positive attitude about aging: “ageing [the British spelling] is, says Fran to herself gamely…a fascinating journey into the unknown” (p. 21), although that attitude is shaken at times, especially when she sees in some of the old-age homes that longevity is not always a good thing. In the course of her work and her personal life, she observes many examples of ways different people age. In her personal life, she brings meals to her ex-husband, who is housebound and dying. She regularly visits her friend Theresa, who is also dying. And then there is her acquaintance, the writer and art historian Bennett, who has retired to the Canary Islands with his life partner, Ivor, where they live a comfortable life (except for the ominous rising of the surrounding waters, and the frequent horrible journeys -- and sometimes deaths -- of desperate refugees from North Africa), until Bennett’s health takes a turn for the worse. Other characters are Fran’s son Christopher, a journalist, who also visits the Canary Islands, and Fran’s daughter Poppet, who is a conservationist of sorts, lives near a sort of flood plain and worries about the fate of the earth. Fran is the one who connects them all, and Fran, being a classic worrier, worries about everything: each of her family members and friends, the people in the old-age residences, climate change, her car’s brakes after her car partially sank into a flooded road near Poppet's home, and more. I find Fran an engaging and very believable character, somewhat like women I have known and know. And I admire Drabble’s focus on, and forthright grappling with, the issues of aging, the increasing number of aged people, and the responsibilities of family, friends, government, and society toward aging people, who are, after all, our parents and friends and eventually ourselves. I have read several of Drabble’s novels over the past decades, and have always admired her excellent writing and her unique tone, a certain bracing matter-of-factness, a down-to-earthness that is refreshing. It is always a good occasion when she has a new novel out. Drabble is also a respected scholar who has written biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson and has edited “The Oxford Companion to English Literature.”
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