Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 25, 2016

The Dark Flood Rises (2016), by Margaret Drabble

the-dark-flood-risesI seem to have read a few books lately about what constitutes a good death: what a morbid topic for Christmas Day, eh?  Alas, Margaret Drabble’s new novel The Dark Flood Rises is due back at the library tomorrow and if I don’t write the review this morning before the frivolity starts, my thoughts will be lost in a haze of champagne bubbles…

So, succinct is the order of the day.  The Dark Flood Rises is the ruminations of an assortment of ageing characters, notably 70-something Francesca (Fran) Stubbs, widowed by her second marriage and providing meals-on-wheels to her ex-husband Claude.  Through the third person narration we meet a host of characters and memories from her past, and see her preoccupation with death exacerbated by her work as a sort of consultant to the aged-care industry, inspecting their accommodation options and assessing the acceptability of the lifestyle they offer.

More interesting to me were the musings of Ivor, gay companion and helpmeet to Bennett who is a good bit older (and wealthier) than Ivor.  It was nice that Drabble avoided the cliché of lover-with-an-eye-on-the-main-chance.  Ivor is a thoroughly nice man, and obsessively honest with Bennett’s money, which he manages, as he manages everything else.

Fran’s son Christopher suffers the pain of losing his girlfriend Sara when she was still young.  Not entirely satisfactorily, he seems less preoccupied by death than Fran does.  Indeed he seems more bothered by the unfinished business of  Sara’s film project than by losing her as a person.  It’s not entirely convincing, even if their relationship was never on a firm footing.  IMO the first time someone of your peer group dies is a shock of some magnitude: it diminishes the insouciance of youth in one fell swoop.  Perhaps Drabble has forgotten this…

A lot of the novel is wry and amusing, but #duckingforcover (because we all love Drabble) some of Fran’s musings about the past and her pals and her childhood verge on the tedious.  If you’ve ever spent a long afternoon with an elderly person going on and on about The Old Days, and you’ve enjoyed the first hour but not the second, you will recognise that self in this book.  (No, I hasten to add, I am not thinking about my dear old dad, he and I talk about books and politics, not The Old Days.  He never has been the sort of person to tell the same old stories over and over again and he does not mine the past for conversation).

The narrative drive perks up a bit as a flood advances on West Country where Fran’s oddly-named daughter Poppet lives, and there is a small frisson as some volcanic activity (#SorryCan’tResistIt) shakes up the Canary Islands where her son Christopher is visiting Ivor and Bennett while sorting out Sara’s affairs.  But mostly, the reader is anticipating Fran’s death, because the novel leads us to do that, even though she’s only in her seventies…

Mildly entertaining, but it lacks the sparkle of the early Drabble novels.

Author: Margaret Drabble
Title: The Dark Flood Rises
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355307
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Dark Flood Rises



  1. Not a cheery read then. What’s that quote: old age isn’t for sissies?


  2. Nice review although I enjoyed it a little more than you did, albeit our opinions don’t diverge as far as we did on the Best Book of 2016 in the Fulcherkim awards, Pond!

    But I’m an actuary so ageing and demographics is my favourite topic, indeed it got an extra star just for using the word actuarial. I don’t think the mundane issues of demographics (care homes etc) are covered well elsewhere in literary fiction, albeit Drabble’s focus is on a rather rich cohort of the population able to choose their own fate.

    I preferred it to The Golden Child but haven’t actually read much of her earlier novels (other than The Peppered Moth) – any recommendations?

    Very good point made in your review about Christopher’s seeming indifference to Fran’s death – the novel itself, as I recall, does remark on it, but it still doesn’t ring true.


    • True about the wealthy cohort Drabble focusses on, but surprisingly, she doesn’t explore ageing for very intelligent people. She raises the way that art lovers and theatre goers come to a stage where it’s too hard and too tiring to get out and about to do the things they love, but she doesn’t really come to grips with the difficulties of sustaining an intellectual life in aged care. There is a hint that Fran’s life is going to close in because her friends have died, but ironically for a book that I think is a bit too long for itself, I think the book ends too soon and skates over the endgame.


  3. I think my mum doesn’t talk enough about the old days, and her father before her was the same, I’m just starting to realise how much I don’t know that I should have asked


    • Perhaps you could help her with some memoirs? I did this with my old music teacher, visiting her each week with some starter questions which I recorded onto a DVR and them typed up for her to check. This was a great interest for her and I enjoyed it too.
      Doing it in a focussed way means that you don’t get the same old stories over and over again while avoiding the stories you really want to know about.


  4. Good review and I think I really enjoyed it more than you did. I realized it could be bleak for some readers, but it wasn’t at all for me. I identified with Fran way more than I usually “identify” with fictional characters. Chris was not so strong perhaps, but Poppy was great. I kind of loved them all.


  5. One more thing – I thought Christoper was possibly latently gay himself, turned off by his father and very much liking Iver.


  6. Hi Becky,
    I think I may have been feeling a bit bleak about death and not in the mood for it…


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