This is a gripping and disturbing novel. It is replete with the bursts of insight and powerful expression that readers of the fiction of Margaret Drabble have come to expect over the decades. I think of her as a writer of the old school. One finds in this novel no incursions into the realm of metafiction; the story unfolds in a more or less straightforward manner, though there is some shifting of time and place. The characters are for the most part in their seventies or thereabouts, as is their creator. And like their creator, they are highly literate and cultured people.
The mood is one of deep melancholy. Early on, Francesca Stubbs, one of the main characters in the narrative, recalls these lines from MacBeth:
And that which should accompany old age,As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,I must not look to have….
It’s rather an odd quote for Fran to be reflecting on, as she herself has quite a few friends. Some are in various stages of physical and/or mental decline, but others are still as robust and active as she herself is. In fact, some might say she overdoes it, driving all around the countryside in her capacity as inspector of facilities for the housing of the aged. She has two grown children, a son and a daughter, each rather odd in his or her own way, but basically caring and loving. And she prepares and delivers “plated meals” for her ex-husband Claude, who is bedridden as much by inclination as by necessity.
Fran’s occupation causes her to think a lot about the current state of death and dying. Her conclusions tend to be rather grim:
Her inspection of evolving models of residential care and care hoes for the elderly have made her aware of the infinitely clever and complex and inhumane delays and devices we create to avoid and deny death, to avoid fulfilling our destiny and arriving at our destination. And the result, in so many cases, has been that we arrive there not in good spirits, as we say our last farewells and greet the afterlife, but senseless, incontinent, demented, medicated into amnesia, aphasia, indignity. Old fools, who didn’t have the courage to have that last whiskey and set their bedding on fire with a last cigarette.
Good grief. After that, you may be shuddering and thinking, why would I want to read this book? Here’s the thing, though: the interactions among the characters are rich and memorable. You come to care greatly about both their lives and their deaths. And believe it or not: There’s humor, too, although mostly of a decidedly dark caste.
Much of the novel’s action takes place in England – a mostly rainy, chilly England – but a good portion takes place in the Canary Islands. This sunlit, idyllic locale is home to Ivor and Bennett, writers and literary gentlemen. These two have been quietly devoted to each other for decades. They still have a connection to Britain, and friends from there cycle in and out of their lives, most notably Fran’s son Christopher. Drabble renders this setting so vividly that you’ll want to up sticks and go there (especially if you’re experiencing dreary weather in your current habitation.)
Ivor is younger than Bennett, but both are aging into that realm of uncertainty which precedes death:
Bennett is here for his health and Ivor is here because Bennett needs him to be here….Ivor needs Bennett because Bennett holds the purse strings. It is too depressing, and yet not ignoble. They are bound together by the needs which succeed love, by the needs which succeed sex and affection. Ivor does not like thinking in these terms, but it is hard to avoid them. They sit by him, these considerations, looking at him from time to time, as does the pretty collared dove with its pale and pearly plumage.
Ivor has begun to seek solace in visits to a small chapel on the island. He tells no one he is doing this, not even Bennett. Especially not Bennett. Ivor’s wordless prayers ascend upwards.
It may be a false solace, but there’s more truth in it than in the endless discussions about doctors, diets, symptoms and medications, about dwindling royalties and bad reviews by old enemies, about the menace of e-books and the demise of booksellers and the new historiography.
Fran’s reflections on the subject of religion run along a decidedly different track:
She has known some who have lost their faith late in life, in their sixties, in their seventies, even in their eighties. Because the human story is so very disappointing, because the cruelty of it is so very great, and God’s care of his creation so hard to interpret.
‘God’s care of his creation’….That phrase really gave me pause. I had that reaction frequently while reading this provocative, no-punches-pulled novel.
One of the most appealing characters in The Dark Flood Rises is a friend of Fran’s named Teresa Quin. Teresa is ill with cancer and has not much longer to live and knows it. She’s resigned to her fate, and gracious in her resignation. Her chief desire is to see her son Luke, a physician in Africa, before she passes. This wish is granted. Luke reaches her in time. “Teresa is elated.”
The Dark Flood Rises is a profound meditation on death, but to me it seems an equally profound meditation on life: “O make the most of what we yet may spend….”. It has in it some of the qualities that Peter Ackroyd, in his book Albion, ascribes to the English temperament in general, and to the King Arthur legends in particular:
The story of Arthur has always been striated with sensations of loss and of transitoriness, which may well account for its central place within the English imagination; the native sensibility is touched with melancholy…and the sad fate of Arthur and his kingdom corresponds to that national mood. There is something, too, of determination and endurance within this dominant sensation. Some men say that Arthur will rise again; we must endure our going hence. It is the kind of stoicism which as been seen as characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in “The Battle of Malden” where the most famous Saxon or English cry has been rendered–“Courage must be the firmer, heart the bolder, spirit must be the greater, as our strength grows less.” That combination of bravery and fatalism, endurance and understatement, is the defining mood of Arthurian legend.
This also puts me in mind of the magnificent closing lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses:”
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’We are not now that strength which in old daysMoved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
This novel’s title is taken from the poem “The Ship of Death” by D.H. Lawrence.