Margaret Drabble's new novel The Dark Flood Rises opens with its protagonist, Francesca Stubbs, tensely driving her Peugeot on an English highway. Fran is an expert on housing for senior citizens; she's herself in her seventies, and lately, she's been obsessed with mortality. Here's the first sentence of the novel: "She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in this world will prove to be 'You bloody old fool' or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, 'you ... idiot.'" (There's a choice, and unprintable on this website, word between "you" and "idiot.")
It becomes very clear very quickly that Fran has no time for minced words or pleasant bromides. She knows she's going to die, but for the most part, she's more annoyed than despairing. When confronted with Dylan Thomas' famous dying of the light, Fran isn't the type to rage. She'd more likely roll her eyes and ask what took it so bloody long. She's an unforgettable character, steely but likable, and The Dark Flood Rises is a beautiful rumination on what it means to grow old.
The novel follows Fran and her family and friends over a period of two months. Much of the book focuses on Fran, who travels frequently for work, observing and reporting on homes for the elderly across the country. She likes her job; in particular, she loves to travel, to wander around towns she's never visited before. "England is now her last love," Drabble writes. "She wants to see it all before she dies. She won't be able to do that, but she'll do her best."
Her elder years haven't been free from worry, although, of course, nobody's are. Her ex-husband, Claude, is ailing, and she finds herself in the position of taking care of him, making him homemade meals. She does this cheerfully, but not without a touch of schadenfreude: "Claude used to say he didn't like soup, half a century ago, but he's not in a position to not like it now, is he? He has to take what he's given, now."
She's also concerned about her son, Christopher, a television personality whose girlfriend has recently died from a rare disease. Christopher has been in the Canary Islands, where his girlfriend was filming a documentary, seeking solace in the company of a group of expatriates. Fran's daughter, Poppet, an environmentalist who "is ideologically austere and gives no quarter," lives on a floodplain out in the country; Fran, aware of the effects of climate change, worries about her, too.
And then there are her friends, some of whom are going through health struggles. Fran enjoys her regular visits with her friend Teresa, who "is dying, but she is dying with such style and commitment that Fran is deeply impressed and encouraged by this last passage."
The Dark Flood Rises jumps from character to character, from England to the Canaries, but the transitions are never sudden or jarring. It's a narrative style that reflects Fran herself. "Her mind wanders, in an endless stream of consciousness," Drabble writes. "Perhaps everybody's does, but she suspects not. Some people have an ability to concentrate, to focus. She lacks this."
And while the subject matter of the book is inescapably, well, dark, Drabble lightens the mood with some genuinely clever humor. In one scene, the emotionally distant Claude reflects that he and Fran's children have "turned out OK, sort of OK, very OK when you look at what has happened to other people's children. When you look at a generation of drug addicts, disgraced bankers ... stand-up comics, would-be media moguls, property thieves."
It's a truly lovely novel, and when Fran reaches an emotional breaking point — "a great tearfulness rising up in her, a grief for all things" — it's hard not to cry with her, for her. This isn't a sentimental book, but it's a deeply emotional one. Drabble doesn't ask the reader to feel sorry for Fran; instead, she invites us to live in her world, to consider how sad, how funny, how genuinely absurd aging is. Or as Fran herself puts it, using another one of those choice but unprintable words, "Old age, it's a ... disaster."