IT SOMETIMES COMES as a shock to realize that Margaret Drabble must have an English accent. Her level, contemplative style is so close to our own internal voices - or what we'd like to imagine our internal voices to be - that little reminders like "bed-sit" and "It was not fair on them" tend to stop us in our tracks. She writes as if she knows exactly what question we'd like to ask next. Introducing any character, she unfolds before us his past, his inner life, the complicated mechanisms by which he manages to coexist with the other characters. There are no paper people in Margaret Drabble's books.
Her eighth nove, The Ice Age, revolves around the issues of chance and choice. How many chance events in our lives are, in fact, subconsciously chosen? And why is it that playing with chance, daring it to do us in, is so compelling?
The central character, Anthony Keating, has always felt a little bored by his various successful jobs. And boredom is something he finds hard to tolerate. We're dealing, it turns out, with a man who once discovered he would rather hang himself from a hook by his belt than spend two hours locked in a bathroom without sufficient reading matter. Then, in mid-life, he stumbles into the world of high finance: buying up derelict properties and erecting new buildings on them. He begins to make a great deal of money, but that's not the main attraction for him; it's the element of chance. For the first time, he can sleep through the night without waking up to ask himself, "Is this it?"
Money isn't often, in literature, given its due as a mover of plots. But here it's discussed in fine detail, and although this may be hard to believe, even such leaden subjects as interest rates and the Property Investment Review take on a sort of magic. Look at Anthony's purchase of a strategic site upon which a gas storage tank happens to stand:
"It gave Anthony the most profound joy to find himself in possession of a gasometer. He had always admired their delicate, airy, elaborately simple structures, and he would drive down to look at his own, for the pleasure of looking at it. It was painted a steely gray-blue, and it rose up against the sky like a part of the sky itself; iron air, a cloud, a mirage, a paradox, defining a space of sky, changing subtly in color as the color of the sky changed. It stood dark and cold, it would catch the pink wash of sunset, it would turn white like a seagull, it would take upon itself the delicate palest blue against a slate-dark background."
You almost want to run out and buy a gasometer of your own.
Unfortunately for Anthony, his new career is soon swallowed up by England's current "ice age" - the economic slump, financial empires toppling, wealthy businessmen hustled off to jail. There is an almost tangible sense, all through this book, of a country with its lights dimmed. The streets are a wasteland of rubble. IRA bombs kill bystanders at random. And Anthony finds himself on the brink of bankruptcy, recovering from a heart attack possibly brought about by the strain, in danger of losing his expensive new country house along with everything else he owns. Chance, it turns out, has been his undoing.
Or is it all chance? At a later point in the novel, hearing that he may not be ruined after all, Anthony reflects that "he had become so accustomed to living with self-reproach that he did not think he would adjust very easily to self-congratulation." He tells himself: "I should feel relieved, but in some way I feel obscurely cheated." In fact, most of the characters in this book appear to take some pride in their headlong rushes toward disaster. Alison, Anthony's fiancee, choose to love only her retarded, unsalvageable daughter, at the expense of her normal daughter. And her normal daughter has, as Alison describes it, "chosen" to kill two people in a traffic accident in a very unsympathetic Balkan country. Characters keep finding themselves imprisoned, either literally or figuratively (in jails, in work camps, in hostile foreign cities), but the imprisonment brings them a peculiar sense of rest. Although this book may be said to have an unhappy ending, it's a strangely satisfying ending; we seem to have fallen in with the characters' own fatalism.
The Ice Age is, like all of Margaret Drabble's novels, solid and complete, its pages dense with long, full, complex paragraphs. There is something nourishing about it. With its accuracy and its wealth of detail, it is unerringly true to life, but in the very best sense it is untrue to life: it tells us more than we would ever find out in reality; it tells us less, by just the right amount, than what we would like to know.