The dark flood of which Margaret Drabble writes is, of course, aging and death. This novel examines a number of ways in which this tide can be met as various seventy-somethings live their waning years. Fran still works, driving all around England (which she wishes to see all of before she dies) as an inspector of the various institutions where old people live, as well as making plated dinners for her ex, who is dying in comfort. Her friend Josephine lives in an apartment complex for retired academics; she still teaches literature for adults. Teresa is dying, not so much in comfort, of asbestos in her lungs. She relies on opiates and her faith in God to get her through. Meanwhile, down in the Canary Islands, Bennet has a large house and a long time live in companion. He lives stylishly until a fall, caused by an earthquake, rattles his brain. He will live out his life well cared for, but what will become of his partner, Ivor, when Bennet dies? There is no one to take care of him. In this tale, as in life, death does not only come to the aged; Fran’s son loses his lover to fast moving cancer. Fran’s daughter lives in a flood plain and monitors the world’s ecological problems as water, quite literally, rises.
There is not much in the way of plot. This is more of a philosophical novel; have these people lived good and useful lives? What does it mean to age with dignity? The characters are very well drawn; Drabble obviously cares for these people (she is in her late 70s herself, and so may be looking at her own circle) There is a sub-topic of another form a dark flood that is rising: the immigrants flooding in from Africa and the Middle-East, and the xenophobia that they are greeted with by white people.
The book is thoughtful, but not uplifting; neither is it gloomy despite the subject. It’s humorous in places; neither sharp wit nor irony fade with age. One bit that jarred was the ending; after slowly moving through a few months, suddenly years are compressed into a few paragraphs. Although now that I think about it, time does seem to work that way; in our youth time seems unlimited, while now, in old age, it seems to fly with frightening rapidity. Five stars.
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