The advice to new writers is, I understand, “Write what you know.” Though the 78-year old Dame Margaret Drabble is hardly a new writer, she seems to have done that with this book. The characters are old and illustrate the various situations in which the upper middle class elderly find themselves. Often older characters in a book are looking back over the events that are the pivotal aspect of a novel; in this case, the focus is on their lives at this stage. We are introduced to a series of characters who have ties, some close, some not.
Fran gets the most air time. She is unusual in that she is still working and it is through her work that we hear technical details about how the elderly are cared for. She goes to conferences and makes reports to funding organizations for care homes and concerns herself with such things as the importance of lever door handles versus screw doorknobs (can be a life and death matter for those with weak hands). Her approach to being in her 70s is to drive around the countryside, even ignoring weather warnings, and take on such activities as taking home-cooked food for her invalid ex-husband. She enjoys planning and preparing food for Claude; after their divorce, she had years of a happy marriage to Hamish. She sees that time as a happy interlude, but now that Hamish has died, she’s back to the struggle with Claude.
There’s Fran’s friend Jo, her friend from the years when they both had young children. Jo taught at the University and now is settled into a pleasant and comfortable place to live. She teaches an adult education course each semester that enlivens her life and she does it very well. She has an interesting cocktail each Thursday with an old friend.
That old friend knows Bennett and Ivor, who live in the Canary Islands. Bennett was a well-known academic and Ivor was the beautiful younger man who has been caring for him for decades. They’ve had a rich and diverse life with travels all over the world and now they are settled in a comfortable place to live. Ivor works hard to keep Bennett from launching into an ill-thought out project or straying too far from the conversation at hand.
The recounting of this phase of these lives is a bit dreary, though never depressing or hopelessly dull, but perhaps that’s because of my own age. The author gives enough respect to her characters, but only barely enough. Her view of our modern take on the end of life comes early in the book. She says that Fran’s years of work
have made her aware of the infinitely clever and complex and inhuman delays and devices we create to avoid and deny death, to avoid fulfilling our destiny and arriving at our destination. And the result, in so many cases, has been that we arrive there not in good spirits as we say our last farewells and greet the afterlife but senseless, incontinent, demented, medicated into amnesia, aphasia, indignity.
For me the book was enlivened by mentions of Pauline Boty, a pop artist who came up in Ali Smith’s book Autumn. I hadn’t heard of her before that encountering her there; how interesting that she appeared in another recent novel. Another name that came up was Hubert Lyautey. Bennett has been interested in him, perhaps because of his sexual orientation, and is considering writing a biography about him. I recalled him from Edith Wharton’s In Morocco as she was quite taken with the French influence on Morocco in the person of Governor General Lyautey.
Margaret Drabble, The Dark Tide Rises, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017, 327 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.