The Ice Age
Events associated with the characters of Margaret Drabble’s latest novel when listed off seem bizarre: a mother has borne one brain-damaged child and another, now a teen-ager, who has been imprisoned in a Balkan country behind the Iron Curtain; a woman has had her foot blown off by an I.R.A. bomb in a London restaurant; a property developer has been imprisoned on fraud charges; a fairly young television executive turned property speculator has both lost his fortune and suffered a heart attack. But as the novel develops, one sees that their stories are meant to appear not freakish but representative—representative, that is, of the troubles that are afflicting British citizens and, in fact, Britain itself. Most of the exciting events have happened just before the novel begins, moreover, so that it is mainly concerned with a time of passivity and waiting; the characters are, one might say, iced in.
Like her last novel, Realms of Gold, Margaret Drabble’s book focuses chiefly on two lovers in midlife but intertwines their story with a number of others. It is much more obvious in this novel than in the previous one, however, that the characters are types chosen to illustrate contemporary English life and the vicissitudes peculiar to it. Fortunately, Drabble’s ability to develop believable and sympathetic characters and to write well in a lowkey, finely ironic style prevents the book from being boringly schematic. Moreover, her inveterate cheerfulness keeps The Ice Age from becoming a gloomy catalog of disasters.
Yet such a catalog may be inferred from the characterizations, events, and commentary of the novel. London is a “sinking ship,” spilling over with people, garbage, and motor vehicles. Masses of concrete buildings stand empty, having proved not to be what anyone wanted to live in or rent for offices; in fact, belief in growth as an ideal to strive for has also been a casualty of the slump. No ideal or vision has replaced this belief; there is instead fear and despondency, disgust with corruption, and lack of confidence. Economically there is a slump, yet inflation accompanies recession. There is random terrorism: death can strike anywhere at any harmless, goodhearted person. Accidents, it seems, are becoming more frequent and more intense. Of course there are physical ills characteristic of our time: the heart attack that strikes a young businessman; cerebral palsy; breast cancer. Also, cracks and decay appear in domestic as well as public life: children reject old traditions, taking to drugs and easy sex; wives are dissatisfied, and both husbands and wives are unfaithful; divorces are common, so common that some people have several. Homosexuality surfaces. God is out of date, and mysterious influences from outer space are in. Intellectually there is a change, too: a classicist, committed to preserving the tradition of scholarship, finds that students are no longer interested and that in the end he has lost interest himself both in classics and in composing poetry; like a dryad in a myth he seems to have been changed into a tree.
As the list shows, Drabble has attempted to be impressive but not comprehensive. Cold War difficulties and political prisons are introduced through the scenes set in Wallacia, but international problems are otherwise omitted, as are the dangers of pollution, the evils of political corruption, the problems of dealing with labor unions, racial problems, energy problems and many others. She is suggesting a variety of typical problems of life in England today; however, she is most interested in stressing the emptiness, the lack of social values and ideals, the boredom, the selfishness, the depression, the insecurity of individuals.
As The Ice Age begins, its characters and England itself are sunk in depression, bogged down in problems they do not know whom to blame for and don’t know what to do about: “A huge icy fist, with large cold fingers, was squeezing and chilling the people of Britain, that great and puissant nation, slowing down their blood, locking them into immobility, fixing them in a solid stasis, like fish in a frozen river.” But as the novel moves along, things appear to be improving somewhat, although perhaps at glacial speed; and the end of the book is positively hopeful in a qualified way. Two-thirds through, a nightclub entertainer who specializes in insults and black comedy is introduced so that his point of view may be rejected. The English have lost their feeling of innate superiority, and they no longer deserve to be insulted and knocked about. At this point England is portrayed as not frustrated, not stuck fast, but “passing through some strange metamorphosis, through the intense creative lethargy of profound self-contemplation.” Finally, the last sentence of the book assures us that “Britain will recover.”
Anthony Keating is the character from whose experiences a reader can most readily discern Britain’s problems and anticipate her recovery. At the beginning of the novel, Keating is on ice at his country home, High Rook House, recovering from a heart attack. He has been forbidden excitement, whiskey, cigarettes,...
(The entire section is 2112 words.)