We have come through a rough year. Now in this winter of our discontent, one of the hottest trends is the Scandinavian notion of “hygge,” or coziness. People are seeking comfort food, comfort rituals, “a healing balm for the traumas of 2016,” as the Guardian describes it.
Though a chronicler of her era(s), Margaret Drabble has never been a dedicated follower of fashion, and in her latest novel she firmly bucks the hygge trend: Though quiet and mostly domestic, “The Dark Flood Rises” is miles away from a cozy or even comfortable read.
The subject is death, or more precisely, the process of dying. In the opening paragraph, the novel’s central character, Fran, reflects that her last words will probably be “You bloody old fool” (or perhaps “you f — -ing idiot”). “Too old to die young,” Fran is also too young to die old: somewhere in her 70s, she is still restless, regularly driving across England in her role of inspector of care homes for the elderly, relishing her stays in chain hotels and — especially — their chain restaurant food. “England is now her last love,” she thinks. “She wants to see it all before she dies,” though she acknowledges this will not be possible.
Fran’s job quite naturally lends itself to reflections on mortality, but she has been temperamentally attracted to the subject since childhood, poring over the “Dying Sayings” section of her dictionary of quotations. Now the subject has taken on more urgency as her aging friends and acquaintances confront their looming mortality in disparate ways: retreating into “comfort and laziness and selfishness” and self-prescribed psilocybin (ex-husband Claude); “meet[ing] Old Age halfway” by moving into a “pretentious and expensive retirement home, built to give its residents the illusion that they are living in a Cambridge college” (friend Josephine); meeting cancer with admirable “style and commitment” (new-old friend Teresa); expatriating to a peaceful and aesthetically satisfying life in the Canary Islands, enabled by a younger, highly devoted partner (Sir Bennett and Ivor).
The indignities of old age — physical infirmity, loneliness, fear of death and fear of uselessness — are all vividly present, generally without the compensatory wisdom and peace popularly imagined to manifest in old age. “Occasionally,” we are told, Fran tries to “recall the passionate and ridiculous emotions of her youth and her middle age, the expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Or in a waste of embarrassment, or of envy, or of anxiety, or of wounded vanity.” These things no longer trouble her, but “she certainly hasn’t achieved anything resembling peace of mind. New torments beset her. Her relentless broodings on aging, death, and the last things are not at all peaceful.”
Not at all peaceful, not at all cozy, this novel. There is virtually no plot, only characters and themes, making “The Dark Flood Rises” feel at times more like an extended meditation (in places perhaps a bit overextended) than a novel. The title (and one of the epigraphs) drawn from D.H. Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” links the characters’ ruminations with the work’s more global backdrop: As characters prepare their metaphoric ships of death, literal ships of death bring desperate refugees to the shores of the Canary Islands, climate change causes flooding across southwest England, and undersea volcanic explosions cause tremors across Europe.
“The Dark Flood Rises” escapes being unbearably depressing by the brilliance of its characterizations, the cleverness of its observations and the indomitable spirit of Fran, who reflects that “old age itself is a theme for heroism. It calls upon courage.” This brave novel displays that courage.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
The Dark Flood Rises
By: Margaret Drabble.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 325 pages, $26