A preoccupation with death is felt from the start of Margaret Drabble’s new novel, which opens with Francesca Stubbs, in her seventies, considering whether her last words will be ‘you bloody old fool’ or ‘you fucking idiot’. Fran is central to the web of characters that populate the book, linked by varying degrees of friendship and kinship, but tied more firmly together by the approach of death.
Drabble squares up to old age with pragmatism: she shows us its terrible physical pain, loneliness and expense, but lightens what could threaten to be a grim read with observational humour, delighting in her characters’ eccentric pleasures. Fran, for instance, has a peculiar, stubborn fondness for ‘the familiar and unfailing space’ of Premier Inns, while her friend Jo enjoys a Tuesday evening absinthe with a fellow ageing academic; and Fran’s bed-ridden ex-husband Claude times his evening half-hour of Maria Callas to coincide with a self-prescribed antidepressant, which ‘elevates him, briefly but unfailingly, to a sublime state’.
The title is taken from D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘The Ship of Death’, which Drabble quotes in an epigraph, and the novel is richly allusive — as one might expect from the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature — with references to interrogations of old age from authors including Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Elizabeth Taylor. Some quotations, however, prove to be red herrings: ‘A man could die even here,’ one of the characters, Bennett Carpenter, ‘was fond of repeating’ to his younger lover. ‘Ivor knew it must be a quote, but had never worked out where it came from.’ From Drabble herself, one learns after a quick google; however much has already been written about death, this author persuades us that she has more to say.
Drabble politicises D.H. Lawrence’s ‘dark flood’ of death by recasting it in the context of the migrant crisis. Fran’s son Christopher is in Lanzarote after the sudden death of his partner, Sara, who was filming a documentary there about migration from North Africa. This leads the author to predict that
images of flight and desperation, comparable to, and perhaps in time exceeding, those of the second world war will fill our screens …
perhaps Ivor and Christopher sense the dark flood that approaches.
Compared to the many who perish on their ships of death, undertaking treacherous journeys across the water, ageing becomes something of a blessing. Drabble also gestures towards the impending crisis of global warming as another political setting for her dark floods rising.
There is, however, a silver lining: the author posits that there is some kind of afterlife in the work we leave behind us. Fran enjoys completing a tapestry left unfinished by Jo, and Christopher decides to take up Sara’s documentary. When Jo chances upon a reference to the son of a little-known author in a seemingly unrelated book, she places the two books beside each other: ‘Mother and son. Reunited, they can whisper to one another through the hard covers, through the newly cut pages. The afterlife of letters.’
Ultimately, we take heart from Drabble’s addition to the many voices that whisper of death from this enduring afterlife of letters. For all its morbidity, The Dark Flood Rises is a reassuringly vital novel.