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Pickle Me This

July 9, 2006

The Radiant Way

I first read The Radiant Way nearly two years ago while we were living in Japan and moving house and I should have been packing but wasn’t, I was so absorbed. I note from the inside cover that this book (a ratty paperback that required taping up upon rereading) cost me just one hundred yen from the English Used Book Shop in Kobe. (Technically, this was not my first book by Margaret Drabble, as I’d read The Millstone in 2001 but I had not really liked it at the time, and had forgotten about it by then.) I think I only bought this book because I knew Drabble was AS Byatt’s sister and I had liked Possession. I had no premonition that The Radiant Way would create a Drabble devotee of me.

In my opinion, MD was at her peak around the time of The Radiant Way. The Middle Ground, which I believe preceded it, was also pretty fantastic, as was the Realms of Gold. (Oh don’t get me started, I never met a Drabble I didn’t like). Her early works are very interesting, but perhaps too fashionable, as forty years later, they’re quite dated- perhaps the reason The Millstone didn’t grab me first time around. By the late-1970s, MD was no less concerned with current events and society, but these issues become contextualized in a way that remains relevant. Her later books (since the mid-1990s) are more focused and deliberate and they’re great, but I do particularly love the sprawling nature of The Radiant Way, and her other such books. When Margaret Drabble was trying to write the world. Here, there be England I think- another reason The Millstone mightn’t have so appealed to me. There is particular Englishness about her works that I wouldn’t have understood before I lived there- what it means to be “suffering from a case of the Midlands” for example, which I remember from a book I cannot remember which.

And so I finished reading The Radiant Way this morning before I got out of bed. It did not read so differently from the first time, as I read it only two years ago, though I have since read the rest of the trilogy and so I got to be all omnipotent and know how things turned out. And having since read all of Margaret Drabble’s novels, it’s interesting to see her peculiarities that I wouldn’t have noted first time around. The Radiant Way is a wonderful book about ideas and history, and I am particularly fond of the narrative style. That Margaret Drabble has, through her works, created an entire universe and the ease with which she maneuvers her people within it is amazing. I also like that as readers, we are privy to the author’s view in a way that characters are not. That two characters who are complete strangers pass one another in the street, and nobody else knows it but we do. That characters from her other books keep popping up surprisingly. That the narrator doesn’t profess to make or know the story, just to tell it. To read as a writer, such a narrative is deeply humbling. Through the progression of Drabble’s work, it is clear that it takes ages and ages to get this good, but the thing is so few people ever get this good.

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