Margaret Drabble's The Dark Flood Rises is a significant achievement

There is a nervous energy in her writing which drives this relatively plotless novel forward.

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“Now it is autumn and the falling fruit/and the long journey towards oblivion.” Although D H Lawrence’s prose is not particularly fashionable these days, his raw, arcane poetry continues to exert a startling power and exude presentiment. Margaret Drabble, for her 20th novel, has chosen for its title and epigraph a refrain from Lawrence’s valedictory “The Ship of Death”: there are numerous endings in the book, but it is Lawrence’s restless revolt against mortality which hovers spectacularly throughout. This nervous energy is most present in the novel’s jittery protagonist, Francesca Stubbs.

Fran is an archetypal Drabble character, an older version of her heroines from the 1960s and early 1970s: educated, dogged, middle class, self-improving. “Through our own mortal ingenuity, we are reaching a historical phase when we are beginning to fear old age and longevity more than we fear death,” Drabble wrote in a recent article. Fran, a seventysomething employed by a charity to research viable living arrangements for the so-called third age, “can’t understand the human race’s desire to perpetuate itself, to go on living at all costs”. Or, put more bluntly: “It’s fucked up old age itself.”

As she beetles around the country, checking out care homes and attending sheltered housing conferences, driving too fast and relishing the prosaic delights of overnight stays at a Premier Inn and a glass of cheap Merlot swigged in front of regional television, Fran’s train of thought is unfettered, densely allusive. It ranges over history’s ironic demises and famous last words, from Aeschylus’s death, alleged to have occurred by falling tortoise, to exits closer to home.

Her childhood friend Teresa is in the final stages of a terminal illness, “dying with such a style and commitment that Fran is deeply impressed by this late passage”; her own first husband, a retired surgeon, is complacently and suavely bedridden in a Kensington mansion block in London, his night terrors assuaged by Classic FM and a dual fixation on the late Maria Callas and his carer Persephone. Imminent death is not, of course, the province of only the elderly, as Drabble reminds us, in a book that soon threatens to become littered with more corpses than a Scandi crime thriller, albeit of an erudite variety.

Fran’s son, Christopher, has recently lost his girlfriend Sara, “taken ill very suddenly in a very large bed in a large luxury hotel on the Costa Teguise on the island of Lanzarote” while on holiday. A last supper of local limpets may or may not have been the catalyst for her expiration, which is relayed somewhat in the manner of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. Christopher, a good-natured arts presenter whose trademark rakish glasses are not dissimilar to those of a certain BBC culture editor, was in awe of Sara, an outstanding human rights documentary-maker whose final project, on the plight of refugees from the Western Sahara, is now likely to be shelved.

Mordant wit and a strong humanitarian concern coexist in this novel; Lawrence’s ship of death becomes a metaphor for desperate people fleeing war and famine in rickety boats, washed up on inhospitable European beaches. So, too, does his “dark flood”, with low-level volcanic eruptions in the Azores and an increasingly waterlogged rural south-west England, gloomily monitored through the internet by Fran’s hermit-like daughter, Poppet, as withdrawn as her brother is outgoing.

For Teresa, a Catholic, and for Fran’s friend Josephine, a Cambridge adult education teacher (retired, to Fran’s horror, to one of the same sanitised independent living facilities she professionally recommends but secretly deplores), the afterlife, whether spiritual or secular, is definitely worth cultivating. Jo’s indefatigable tapestry work and her accidental research into a minor literary figure who died in the Spanish Civil War seem as ephemeral and yet as necessary as the intellectual legacy of the nonagenarian expatriate Bennett Carpenter, who, together with his younger partner, befriends the bereaved Christopher and welcomes him into their home on Lanzarote.

In terms of its plotlessness, The Dark Flood most closely resembles Drabble’s 1980 book, The Middle Ground, a series of contemplations on urban disaffection. While her writing can be high-handed, the novel is a significant achievement, admirable and truthful. To quote Lawrence, despairing and heroic, once more: “Look! We Have Come Through!”

Margaret Drabble and Penelope Lively will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 27 November

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile