I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s novels with great pleasure for most of my life, and we’ve all been getting on a bit: Drabble, me, her readers, her characters. So I suppose it was inevitable that we would get to a novel about old age and death. When I discovered that these were indeed the subjects of her eighteenth novel, The Dark Flood Rises, and saw the sinister black-lace design on the cover (is that a devil face?), I steeled myself for a grim read. But it isn’t grim at all.
Grim things certainly happen: infirmity and illness, pain and loss of faculties, grief and loneliness. By the end, some of the people we have come to know intimately are no longer in this world. But on the whole, Drabble’s people are going gently into that good night. Some of them seem to be having quite a good time, considering.
Novels about old people just being old are surprisingly rare. The aged tend to turn up as parents or grandparents of the main characters. If they take centre stage, like Peter Carey’s impossibly ancient Illywhacker, they often do so in order to look back at times when they were young. This is strange when you consider how many well-regarded novelists are hitting their sixties and seventies (Drabble is seventy-seven), and indeed how many of their baby boomer readers are in or approaching the same age bracket. Are we too squeamish to confront the twilight years? Do we believe they are static, dull, the domain of boring old farts?