Margaret Drabble is one of England’s finest novelists, along with her equally brilliant novelist sister, A. S. Byatt, although they don’t seem to speak to one another at all.  Somehow, having come to Byatt first, all of whose novels I’ve read and which astonish in their brilliance and quality, I seemed to believe it to be disloyal to read Drabble.  I got over that: other peoples’ family feuds are not my problem, not my issue. I’m now reading older Drabble novels, too.  Both sisters are of the quality of those other brilliant English women novelists, Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner, Iris Murdoch, and the younger Pat Barker, Jo Baker, and Tessa Hadley.  All can trace elements of their writing styles and brilliant observations of human behavior to Jane Austen, of course. 

Drabble’s latest novel, The Dark Flood Rises, is a rarity, as its main theme is aging, rare in contemporary fiction, as rarely discussed in contemporary Western culture at all: aging seems to be, well, unseemly, in The West.  And Drabble doesn’t shrink from the physical aspects of aging, either, though she doesn’t over dwell on them, either.  “Old age is not for sissies”, Carl Strauss, the late architect, once said to me, and now that I’m 70 myself, the same age as Drabble’s narrator/protagonist in The Dark Flood Rises (the dark flood being aging and death themselves), I more than take his point.  But Drabble’s characters, who would be the first wave of Baby Boomers, all around 70 now, are not people to start sitting at home watching daytime television, and their attempts at remaining not only active, but meaningfully so, are the stuff of this highly intelligent, acutely observed, novel.  Francesca, the 70-year old narrator, is, conveniently, working for a social agency whose purpose is to make certain that housing for the aging is up to par, in all sorts of ways; this plot device obviously allows Drabble to go right into the topic of aging itself.  The characters with whom Francesca stays in touch, regularly, are completely fascinating.  They represent people from all aspects of Francesca’s life.  The most fascinating, to me, is a woman Francesca’d not seen for decades, but the two woman had lived in adjoining semi-detached houses when they were girls, and they now, at old age, spend a lot of time reminiscing, one of the mainstays of those aging (and for those who are writers). They find it essential to remember small details from their childhoods; I find myself doing the same, going ’round my old childhood neighborhood in my head, remembering those critically important Hallowe’en routes from grade school, those houses we avoided on that night because the owners made you come in and chat AND they gave us apples rather than candy….those sorts of things.  I find myself trying to remember words and products from the fifties, in particular, as do Francesca and her childhood friend. 

Other of her friends try to keep themselves intellectually rigorous, either by doing writing, research, and/or visiting with new neighbors (only once a week, of course, for one drink and a couple of nibbles), to keep their intellects vital.  One gay couple lives in The Canary Islands, and their lives will have overlapped with some of those still in England. So many novels will use people narrowed into groups for the purpose of structuring the novel  (“The Bridge on the River Kwai” was used as such a trope in high school, along with Katherine Anne Porter’s “Ship of Fools”).  But Drabble’s tough and smart and amusing.  Her characters also know to stay away, within reason, from their own often floundering grown children as keeping some distance seems to be essential to the children, who , of course, are in touch whenever anything is wrong in their lives. 

The friends, of course, will begin to die off about 3/4 of the way through The Dark Flood Rises, in no particular order, and Francesca will find herself going to memorial services, helping get food out for friends after these services, as her world of friends narrows.  But she always gets back on the road, as her job keeps her both sane and necessary as she ages herself. Drabble’s taken on a rare topic, indeed, and we hope that this novel finds a wide audience, as heaven knows we readers are constantly bombarded by younger rites of passage novels. Aging and death are the last rite of passage, of course; Drabble’s characters are rarely in their late ’80s or ’90s, a relatively new demographic around the developed world, but she’s keenly aware of the costs (financial and otherwise) of aging.   It’s also fascinating to watch a certain level of competitiveness amongst these aging friends, as boomers seem ready to compete from the womb to the tomb, in my own observations of my own friends and acquaintances.  

The Dark Flood Rises also shows what a terrific writer Drabble is; she uses adjectives magnificently (and never uses commas between them, oddly), and her writing is full of aphorisms, almost like De La Rochefoucald or Montaigne.  These observations, on her part, are pithy and smart and often “not nice”, which makes them that much juicier. Dark Flood is a superior novel, and it shows the ongoing brilliance in Margaret Drabble’s mind (I’ve already ready two Drabbles since this one).  I recommend her work, and this novel in particular, to anyone who loves superb writing and equally superb storytelling. Drabble’s at the top of her form.

–Daniel Brown

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