Review: Drabble confronts old age in 'The Dark Flood Rises'

This book cover image released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux shows "The Dark Flood Rises," a novel by Margaret Drabble. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux via AP)

"The Dark Flood Rises" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Margaret Drabble

A car races along a British motorway. The driver, Fran Stubbs, is gainfully employed in her 70s — in fact, an expert in her field — on her way to a conference on housing for the elderly.

She is speculating on how she will die, having read the obituary of an acquaintance that perished in a fire after smoking in bed. Fran doesn't think the acquaintance made such a bad exit compared with a friend who died in a hospital corridor in a wheelchair.

"At least Stella had nobody to blame but herself," Fran thinks as she speeds ahead on the M1, "and although the last minutes couldn't have been pleasant, neither had Birgit's."

A vein of black humor pulses in Margaret Drabble's "The Dark Flood Rises," which, thankfully, makes the novel's reflections on how we age and die as entertaining as a conversation with a dear friend.

Fran is one of a cortege of mostly older characters whose thoughts on aging and death often provoke a laugh or at least a smile.

There is Josephine Drummond, who conducts research on an obscure genre of 19th-century literature, yet struggles with the workings of her phone and DVD recorder. There is Christopher Stubbs, Fran's son, who isn't sure what to make of the fact that his girlfriend has died young and unexpectedly while making a human rights documentary in the Canary Islands.

There is Teresa Quinn, who is dying of mesothelioma, yet happy to imagine her priest might enjoy performing her last rites; she wryly takes comfort in the fact that she is too old to die young.

Drabble's characters are literate, even scholarly, so they naturally attend a Samuel Beckett play or page through a heavy art book or ponder D.H. Lawrence's awareness of his declining health. How do humans cope with, understand and distract themselves from the deterioration of sickness and old age? For these characters, even for religious Teresa, it is art that comforts by offering epiphanies that feel both familiar and edifying.

The novel's title comes from "The Ship of Death," a poem by Lawrence, who died young at 44. The poem's next line after "the dark flood rises" is this: "We are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying."

Christopher returns to the Canaries to make sense of his girlfriend's passing; Fran has a bit of an adventure while driving in a storm. The entangled story lines echo with ideas on the unknowable destination where we are all heading.

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