Since the publication of her first novel, A Summer Birdcage, in 1963, Margaret Drabble has been chronicling the lives of women, children and, more incidentally, men, in post-war, post-industrial Britain.
By JEFFREY ANN GOUDIE
Special to The Star
Drabble has published 17 novels, a short story collection, two biographies, and has served as editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.
In her 18th novel, The Pure Gold Baby, the 74-year-old Drabble looks backward as well as forward, and her gaze encompasses a wide field. She considers anthropology, the missionary impulse, Africa, the architecture of post World War II London and beyond, and the history of institutional care of what we now call the mentally disabled.
Thats the big picture. The small picture is focused on a single mother, her special needs daughter, and their adopted tribe of friends and associates. The Pure Gold Baby is as deep as it is wide: resonant, recursive and contemplative.
The story of Jessica Speight and her daughter Anna is told by Eleanor, an attorney and neighbor in their North London neighborhood. Although a trained anthropologist, Jessica has curtailed her dreams of being out in the field because of a child born from an affair with one of her professors.
Instead of returning to the Africa where she did her initial fieldwork, she confines her efforts to writing for the academic and popular press as an armchair, study-bound, library-dependent anthropologist.
Narrator Eleanor often breaks out of the narrative frame to address the reader directly and confidentially. We are told: You need not feel too sorry for Jess. Some sorrow is appropriate, but she was not, as I hope I have made clear, an object of pity.
We are not to pity Jess because her daughter Anna is the eponymous pure gold baby, a child who defies easy categorization (what child doesnt?), who has a talent for happiness, loves to sing, but who cannot read easily, or perform school-oriented tasks. Because of her sunny disposition, the mothers in this community of friends dont initially notice Annas learning difficulties as Jess does.
The novels narrative arc is 40 years, during which Jess falls in love with and marries American-born Bob, a free-wheeling cultural anthropologist and professional photographer. She has an affair with Zain, a Sudanese man who matriculated at the London School of Economics, but ends up in a psychiatric halfway house because of a violent outburst. Too rapid a journey from too far away, observes Jess, who is as wise as she is curious about other cultures.
As the novel is closing, Jess has reconnected with Lebanese Raoul, whom she met when he was a resident of the same halfway house. He has recovered from his emotional difficulties, and has become a neurologist of some repute. So Jess, though tied down by her maternal obligation to Anna, samples other cultures through her research and writing, but also through her romantic life.
If Anna is her constant, Africa is the metric against which Jess measures her life, and her lifes progress. As a graduate student, she traveled to Zambia, and was transfixed by children with fused and forked toes, a genetic condition then known as lobster claw syndrome, who seemed oblivious of their deviance. They paddled their little barks deftly, smartly.
Her imagination returns repeatedly to the memory of these children: They were proleptic, but they were also prophetic, anticipating as they did the birth of her own daughter who is happily unaware of her own deviance from the norm.
Beyond Jess and Anna, The Pure Gold Baby is the story of narrator Eleanor and her sons, and of Sylvie, a doctor specializing in bladder disorders (yes, this specialty eventually figures in the plot), who becomes a member of Parliament, but whose private shame and sorrow is a jailed son. And its the story of other characters on the fringe of their social network in North London.
Eleanor often seems a stand-in for Drabble, the author. When driving Jess, Sylvie and Raoul home from a fundraiser, Eleanor muses: Sylvie, Jess and Raoul are my passengers, my puppets, I can take them wherever I wish.
Likewise, when comparing Annas pacific life to the more eventful lives of the other growing children of their group, Eleanor frames her observation in a metafictional way: There was no story to her life, no plot.
And when Raoul reconnects with Jess, accidentally on purpose it would seem, Eleanor refers to the story he is living, waiting for Jess to re-enter the unfolding of its plot.
On the other hand, some of Drabbles more self-reflexive references can distract from her otherwise luminous writing: When we look back, we simplify, we forget the sloughs and doubts and backward motions, and see only the shining curve of the story we told ourselves in order to keep ourselves alive and hopeful, that bright curve that led us on to the future. The radiant way.
The Radiant Way, of course, is the title of Drabbles 10th novel.
Some readers might quibble, too, with the sheer amount of arcana in this new novel. Jesss doctoral dissertation is on the impact of missionaries on the practice of traditional remedies in Central Africa.
Additional narrative threads include the story of Dr. Livingstone, and other missionaries; historical trends in psychiatry and the institutionalization and then de-institutionalization of those with mental illness; styles in architecture such as Brutalism, a particularly apt term for a blunt form of windowless, fortress-like building introduced in post-World War II Britain, and the list could go on.
As a student, Drabble received a starred first at Cambridge, and her encyclopedic mind is everywhere in evidence in The Pure Gold Baby . Ironically, or tellingly, this novel features a child who has trouble learning, but who is happy and fulfilled nonetheless.
Told from a backward glance, The Pure Gold Baby, seems at once plot-full and plot-less, concerned as much with what doesnt happen, as what does, to Jess. In this discerning novel, what does happen is the pure gold baby, Anna. From her, Jess learns lifes most important lesson: love.
What she felt for those children, as she was to realise some years later, was a proleptic tenderness. When she saw their little bare bodies, their proud brown belly buttons, the flies clustering round their runny noses, their big eyes, their strangely fused and forked toes, she felt a simple sympathy. Where others might have felt pity or sorrow or revulsion, she felt a kind of joy, an inexplicable joy. Was this a premonition, an inoculation against grief and love to come?
How could it have been? What logic of chronology could have made sense of such a sequence? And yet she was to come to wonder if it had been so. Something had been called upon her from those little ones, and woken in her a tender spirit of response.
From The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Pure Gold Baby, by Margaret Drabble (291 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26)
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Topeka.