With so much written about death, from Solon ("Call no man happy until he is dead") to Trey Parker and Matt Stone ("I promise I will never die"), it takes a brave soul to take up the challenge of saying something new.
That person is Margaret Drabble, who in The Dark Flood Rises gives us a timely and relevant novel about the way we live (and die) now. The title is taken from D.H. Lawrence's poem The Ship of Death: "Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises."
The book's central character, Francesca Stubbs, is in her 70s, but she is no "timid soul." She is energetic and peripatetic, driving across England for her job with a charity foundation that aims to improve living arrangements for the elderly. While she had been "walking steadily on a plateau, for years, through her sixties and into her seventies ... now she's suddenly taken a step down. ... It's not a cliff or fall, but it's a descent to a new kind of plateau, to a lower level."
Her family, including an ex-husband and two children, and a circle of friends and co-workers are the spokes that radiate out from the center in this discursive, anthropological novel. Death in its many varieties is here: sudden and unexpected, lingering and agonizing, even a slow decline into the grave that one character seems to be enjoying immensely.
But The Dark Flood Rises is far from being a dour meditation on mortality. Fueled by Drabble's penetrating intelligence, the book offers launching points for further investigation — into theater (Beckett's Happy Days), climate (the Canary Islands), the Spanish Civil War (Miguel de Unamuno), refugees (another kind of "flood"), art (Cesar Manrique), religion and literature. Drabble's gaze is expansive and unblinking.
The text is studded with epigrams, like "Old age veers toward the inappropriate," and poignancy and keen perception go hand-in-hand: "Claude and Fran live in the world of obituaries now, in the malicious and crepuscular light of memorial services."
Observations about old age and infirmity strike home: "She's noticed that one of the subjects that old people love to discuss, when gathered freshly together, is the time that they go to bed. The topic is at once indescribably boring and not without some interest." Nowhere is there a whiff of mawkishness.
And the way Drabble dabbles with rare or archaic words will please readers who go for that sort of thing. She has one character declare: "I apprehend caducity." In her previous novel, The Pure Gold Baby, Drabble gave a place of honor — the first sentence, no less — to the word "proleptic."
Reading Drabble is like having a brilliant and companionable acquaintance delve into the ways of the world across a dinner table. The subject may be death, but she still brims with life.
Contact Mike Fasso at firstname.lastname@example.org.