Margaret Drabble’s nineteenth novel resembles an entertaining and erudite dinner guest, replete with a succession of fascinating stories, who has far too much wisdom to impart to be constrained by a rigid narrative spine. After fifty pages of Fran’s very English story, I was a little disconcerted to be whisked, without even a chapter break (there are no chapters), to the bar in the Canaries at the table of a man to whom I hadn’t yet been introduced. But I soon appreciated flitting from head to head in a novel that coalesces in an extremely satisfying manner around variations of a theme.
But what theme? Obviously there’s the question of accommodation to ageing – both in terms of the architecture of homes for the elderly and psychological adaptation to one’s physical, social and possibly intellectual decline – and the long gap, for some, between retirement and demise. Is the changing demographic in the Western world the dark flood of the title? Or we could read it in terms of climate change (it’s set in rainy February) with, in England, the risks of flooding exacerbated by relaxed building regulations, and, in the Canaries, an earth tremor that might presage a tsunami. There’s a third potential flood in the theme of refugees and migration, both as one of the major issues of the twenty-first century but also in relation to the history of the Canary Islands.
Herself in her late 70s, Margaret Drabble wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian about her own fears about longevity. I’m hoping she’ll manage another novel or three before she pops her clogs. Thanks to Canongate for my review copy.
Evan is a nurse on the small team at Mercy Hospital that assists terminally ill patients to take their own lives. The strict protocols are designed to prevent abuse of the controversial new law that enables this, although the red tape can also block the nurses’ natural compassion. But learning how to manage this difficult role isn’t Evan’s only challenge. Thanks to an implant to treat her Parkinson’s, his disabled mother, Viv, has been revitalised and wants to leave the nursing home; it’s great to witness a revival of her independent spirit, but is she safe? Meanwhile, his love life is complicated, not only because he makes a couple a trio, but Lon and Simon wouldn’t be so welcoming if they knew what his job entails.
One of Margaret Drabble’s digressions that intrigued me, but didn’t make it into my review, was about Basque refugees, a topic of which I knew nothing until I read the novel The Winterlings. I was particularly intrigued because she’d settled these young migrants in the Peak District, where I do most of my walking and even some of my storytelling, so I’m curious about the facts behind the fiction. A quick online search hasn’t yet yielded any clues but, given that this week’s flash fiction prompt is migration, I’m beginning my exploration in an imagined past. Although set in 1937, it draws on the experience at one of my colleagues on taking a group of contemporary refugees on a guided walk. Also, given the uniqueness of the Basque language it’s influenced by my recent musings on International Mother Language Day.
Fresh air, dry stone walls and purple heather; how naive to think it would suffice. Roast lamb on Sundays on return from the Meeting House, wide-open spaces in which to play. When we tried them with our schoolboy Spanish, their faces registered not familiarity but fear.
We couldn’t distinguish the bombing’s repercussions from culture shock, grief from adolescent sulks. Saddened that our kindness couldn’t cure them, we wandered through the village to the moors. Indifferent, they followed, until their sluggish steps segued into leaps and jumps. Gambolling among the season’s new lambs, strangers no more.