The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

I grew up with Margaret Drabble’s novels, keeping step as she pushed the boundaries with A Summer Bird Cage and The Millstone, looking at the lives of intelligent young women in the 60s. The Dark Flood Rises is her 20th novel and still she is asking questions that concern me, and people of my age. This novel is about growing older and facing death in the 21st Century.

The title is taken from DH Lawrence’s The Ship of Death.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

Has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.


This is the 24th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can see the complete list of reviews and readers recommendations on the page About the Older Women in Fiction Series at the top of the blog.

‘What I do worry about is living’

Margaret Drabble wrote about death and approaching death in an article in the Guardian in October just before the publication of this novel. She referred to ‘the delusion of an afterlife’, no longer shared by many, if it ever was. But we still ‘struggle with the meaning of death’, she suggests. And she has this to add about increased longevity, faced by many of us.

Through our mortal ingenuity, we are reaching a biological phase when we are beginning to fear old age and longevity more than we fear death. We can no longer look forward to the possibility of a sudden, unexpected, merciful release, or falling asleep in bed reading a book (as my mother did), or ceasing on the midnight with no pain. Nor can we make plans to celebrate our departure as a grand culmination of our life’s endeavours, with gracious and grateful and possibly public farewell. That’s because we know that officious folk are going to strive to keep us alive for as long as they possibly can, until we can no longer enjoy anything. Just to prove that hey can. [Guardian 29th October 2016]

I disagree with much of this, believing we should celebrate increased longevity and take advantage of it in others as well as in ourselves. Indeed I have co-written about this and published a book on it this year. (The New Age of Ageing).

But increased longevity does mean paying more attention to that period we call old age. ‘What I do worry about is living,’ says Margaret Drabble. I agree with her. This is new territory, and as the author has said, (in the Paris Review in 1978) it is the function of fiction to explore it, and she has made an accessible approach with The Dark Flood Rises.

A summary

Fran and older people connected to her, and some younger ones, look at death. Fran is in her 70s but fit, caring for her bedbound ex-husband by preparing and delivering meals for him. Her son Christopher lost his partner suddenly in the Canaries. He returns there and is befriended by two gay men, Bennett Carpenter renown but sinking slowly into genteel disability, and Ivor increasingly acting as Bennett’s carer rather than his partner. They are trapped by European economics, and the failure to invest when they had capital. Fran’s daughter Poppet is concerned about the death of the earth. Two of Fran’s older female friends face and then undergo death.


It is Fran’s story with which the novel opens and to which we return at frequent intervals. She is doing ageing very well: she has a no-nonsense approach to it, keeps healthy and active, even undertaking paid work advising on meeting the housing needs of the elderly. This is a good device for some discrete observations about how these needs are widely neglected. Fran is determined not to become a burden on others, in fact to remain useful. She is, we can see, doing all the right things. This does not make her happy (see below for the opening paragraph).

Margaret Drabble is not afraid to enumerate the physical aspects of the ageing body. Or to refer to those things that are no longer problematic. There is a kind of tongue in cheek pleasure in the writing about these, for example the dream Fran has about Tampax. She has driven to a hotel the day before and in the morning she puts her reaction to the dream in order.

… she wonders whether it had sprung from the redness of the meal of the night before, or from her motorway thoughts about Macbeth, or from some new and about-to-be-apprehended aspect of time and the ageing experience.

For ageing is, says Fran to herself gamely as she presses the lift button to go down to her breakfast, a fascinating journey into the unknown. Or that’s one rather good way of looking at it. The thin flow was the blood of life, not of death, reminding her that she is still the same woman, she who once had been the bleeding girl. (20)

The writing

The novel is not divided into chapters, but into short segments. And it is written in the present tense. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, from Fran’s point of view.

She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in the 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 fucking idiot’. As the speeding car hits the tree, or the unserviced boiler explodes, or the smoke and flames fill the hallway, or the grip on the high guttering gives way, those will be her last words. She isn’t to know for sure that it will be so, but she suspects it. In her latter years, she’s become deeply interested in the phrase ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’. Or no woman come to that. ‘Call no woman happy until she is dead.’ (1)

The present tense narration brings a curious slow but immediate impact. It reminds us that these people live alongside us, are us. Time moves onwards, but we can linger in this time of life. The prose has a slightly superior tone, which may be intended to represent the mindset of this group of older people.

The novel does not stay with Fran, but roams among the other characters as they pass their days in the shadow of death’s approach. We see the preoccupations of Fran’s women friends, her ex-husband Claude, Bennett and Ivor trapped in the Canaries and attend a hospital bed and a funeral or two.

43 Wreath & Hide

There are many erudite references in The Dark Flood Rises. One I especially enjoyed was to Elizabeth Taylor, and her novel A Wreath of Roses. Margaret Drabble is very well read and her well-educated cast of characters have various interests which enable her to refer to many other writers and what they said about ageing and dying.

There is a great deal of humour, and pathos, in the doings of these characters. There is selflessness and selfishness, affluence and poverty, friendship and admiration. Some of these people have been very eminent in their professional lives in earlier times. Bennett Carpenter is a notable historian of Spain. Claude was a highly regarded surgeon. Some of the older people are immersing themselves in rather narrow interests. For example, Jo develops a researcher’s interest in novels about marriage to the DWS (deceased wife’s sister). Claude wants to listen to endless Maria Callas, while cuddling his carer. Many of these old people are lonely, have lost partners and are fearful of intruding upon their children’s lives.

And I want to mention that the story references population movements too, especially across the Mediterranean and especially the treacherous, desperate voyages that see the end of so many lives as people escape violence.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble, published by Canongate in 2016. 326 pp

Related posts

Margaret Drabble’s article in the Guardian, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I worry about living’ October 2016.

My review of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses.

The previous post in the older woman in fiction series was A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman.


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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction

13 Responses to The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

  1. I also read that Guardian article, which piqued my interest about the novel. As it’s been waiting on my TBR shelf, I’ve thought about you and this series, so glad you got there. If it’s not too provocative, I might pair it with a review of a novel on assisted suicide, or maybe I’ll relish the opportunity to provoke.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Anne for this thought.

      That would be an interesting pairing. I think Margaret Drabble is looking at how to live, rather than how to die, when you are old, connected but not the same I think.

  2. Marianne Coleman

    Thanks Caroline I too read the Guardian article and decided I needed to read the book but have done nothing about it, so now I will. As a co-author of the ‘New Age of Ageing’ with you and Eileen how could I fail to be interested in the topic.

    A friend passed me a copy of ‘The Seven Sisters’, a book by Margaret Drabble published in 2002 which also fits into your older women in literature theme. Not necessarily one of her best but still an interesting read. Much of it is written as a diary and some of it narrated in the third person with a section ‘written’ by the central character’s daughter.

    • Caroline

      Hi Marianne,
      I thought it would appeal to you!
      And thanks for the recommendation of The Seven Sisters, which I haven’t read. I’ve added it to the list.

      Caroline xx

  3. Jennifer Evans

    I, too, grew up with Margaret Drabble. In one of the early novels – I think it was The Garrick Year – the heroine was married to a man called David Evans, as was I at the time I read it. I like her recent book of short stories, taken from all stages of her writing career, which allowed some clear themes to emerge. I’ll look forward to reading this one too.

    • Caroline

      Hi Jennifer,
      those coincidences really pull you into some books don’t they?
      Yes I like her short stories as well.
      Let us know how you enjoy this one when you have read it.

      Caroline xx

  4. Eileen

    Hi C,
    Just to let you know I received this in the usual way. Well done for sorting out the problem,

  5. Anne

    I too grew up with Margaret Drabble- and can recall reading “The Millstone” as a teenager and thinking it was terrible daring! I heard MD talking about this her latest novel on the radio and this prompted me to read it. I loved it- I liked Fran. In fact I read it and immediately re-read it because I wanted to stay in the novel. I admired Fran’s attitude to growing older and her stoicism. I admired her activity and her care for others- her just keep going determination, her reaction to the deaths of her two friends. But all the other characters were interesting too- her son, Bennett and Ivor and the very small reference to her daughter’s love affair with one of Jo’s sons- just dropped in and leaving you wanting to know more. I enjoyed the inclusion of references to the contemporary world. And as it happens, because I visit friends who have moved to Lanzerote and La Gomera I really chuckled to recognise the landmarks of Lanzerote- I too have had a drink in the top-floor bar of the tall hotel and been knocked over by the waves as I swam in the sea. I thought the end of the book was lovely- Fran in her Premier Inn observing the people around her, showing interest and insight. I do hope MD keeps on writing!

    • Caroline

      Hi Anne,
      I think she has done a really good thing here, reminded us that older people are sharing the world with everyone else. I’ve never been to Lanzarote, but your comments link me to the real places and events she mentions. That was why I included the photo of the refugee boat.
      I agree. Lets hope she goes on writing.

      Caro xx

  6. Anneontheshelf

    Very much enjoyed this multi layered book. Very well drawn likeable (for most part) characters living out their lives with the flood becoming ever closer.I felt a real sense of the doom approaching and enjoyed the red herrings of the plot that made me fear death by earthquake, brake failure, drowning..! Literary allusions were appreciated and such clever economy in final chapter. A lesser novelist would have churned out 600 pages instead of three hundred. Need to mull it over now and revisit a few parts. Won’t forget this book. Thanks for your review and the link to the Guardian article.

    • Caroline

      Hi Anne,
      Glad you enjoyed this book so much. I find myself thinking about it a great deal, and will return to it soon I am sure.
      I think the Guardian article is very interesting as well.
      Thanks for leaving a comment.

  7. Lorraine Levine

    I would like to subscribe, please

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