Margaret Drabble: The Dark Flood Rises

by Jennifer Bryce

Drabble 2

Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel weaves around De Beauvoir’s observation that with people living longer ‘their idleness [is] all the harder to bear . . . mere survival is worse than death’. The main character in this book is Fran, in her seventies, ‘too old to die young’. She is not idle – she works as an inspector of nursing homes and is thus in a position to muse about the various arrangements of the characters in this book – all connected by blood or friendship. There is no plot, and there doesn’t need to be. Each character has a different way of coping with their ‘long journey towards oblivion’, (from D.H. Lawrence’s The Ship of Death).

Drabble 1

The book’s title comes from this poem:

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

the ship of death 2

The title, for this reader, also suggested climate change – we live longer, we are idle, yet along with the inevitability of death is the inevitability of destruction. Fran has to cope with rising floods as she drives through the West of England and the superannuated gay gentlemen living on the Canary Islands must cope with a low magnitude earth quake.

Several characters die during the course of the book and, although some have been in quite advanced states of decrepitude, the death is still a shock when it happens. The saddest, perhaps, is Fran’s best friend from childhood. An academic, she lived in a kind of pseudo university college nursing home and was still teaching adult classes. Fran has been separated from her husband for 50 years, but now, in a new kind of companionship brought on by old age, she takes the almost immobile, very comfortably off retired orthopaedic surgeon frozen dinners that she prepares specially for him. Perhaps the greatest relief is to hear of the death of Aunt Dorothy who has lived ‘becalmed’ in Chestnut Court for many years in a late stage of dementia, ‘a porcelain figurine’.

The book ends much as it began, with Fran on the road again, staying in her favourite hotel chain eating an Indian dinner and watching the antics of a young family. I’d been worried that the book was going to end with Fran’s death in a road crash, as she keeps forgetting to have the brakes checked, but no, her road to oblivion continues: ‘Seeing it through, that’s the best she can do’.

the ship of death 4

[W.C. Piguenit, The Flood in the Darling 1890, Art Gallery of NSW]