Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises (2016)
Among the generation of female authors who have shaped the English novel during the last few decades, none has brought me more pleasure than Margaret Drabble, so it was with keen expectation that I opened this recent work. It reflects the stage of life the author has reached, for it deals with the experiences of a group of characters who have retired, or could have done so, and find themselves confronting the issues that face people as they move towards old age. Their activities are described in a high-detail kind of writing that I enjoy: ‘As she lies on her guaranteed-good-night’s-sleep bed, watching the evening news and eating a packet of some novel kind of Gujarati mix (satisfyingly spicy but rather too many peanuts) washed down with a bottle of not-quite-cold-enough screw-top 13% Spanish white purchased from the friendly bearded Muslim newsagent over the road…’ Amid this dense accumulation of information we are introduced to people who are, are on the whole, likeable and thoughtful folk who try to do good, the kind of people one would enjoy meeting; it is part of Drabble’s skill to awaken affection for her creations and make us reluctant to judge them. But we never forget that they are moving towards the end. More than once I was reminded of the English movie ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, and the dawning awareness as one watched it that by the end four of the characters would be newly married and one dead. One becomes aware during Drabble’s novel that not all the characters are going to make it, and begins to wonder…
The novel offers a portrayal of a slice of middle class English life, in particular as represented by a heroine who juggles various responsibilities, that is thoroughly enjoyable. The careers the protagonists have had, the means by which they remain in contact with each other and even the housing in which they live would have surprised the generation that preceded them. Yet continuities in the English people, among them their self-awareness, concern for others, and cultivated interest in ideas and high culture, are attractively displayed. They interact with each other in a freely flowing way that makes the division of the novel into short passages rather than chapters that would reflect the structure of a tight plot appropriate.Just occasionally the writing falls flat:
‘The traffic slows to a halt for a while as the road narrows towards Stonehenge.
‘The standstill gives her time to admire the ancient Wiltshire landscape, and when she’s had enough of that, to check her mobile.’
‘The Dark Flood Rises’ gave me great satisfaction, but it was the kind that comes from wry acknowledgment of the characters and a kind of recognition of the situations in which they found themselves. It is this that keeps me from placing it among the very finest works of fiction. Like a great painting, a great work of fiction will subtly change the way you look at the world by making you aware of things you hadn’t been aware of. This fine novel superbly reflects and consolidates one’s perspectives, without really pointing beyond them.