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December 19, 2006

The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble

The necessary disclosure is that I’m in no way qualified to review anything written by Margaret Drabble with objectivity. It’s no secret that she is my very favourite author, and that I would read a phone book so long as it was written by her. So it’s no surprise that I loved The Sea Lady. Which is not to say that The Sea Lady has anything in common with the phonebook at all (apart from some fine names), but I am not fully convinced that it might be everybody’s cup of tea.

I have determined three marked periods in the career of Ms. Drabble. From her first novel A Summer Bird Cage until Jerusalem The Golden, she wrote about very fashionable, fabulous, modern people. This continues to some extent into The Needle’s Eye and The Ice Age as well. Though the characters begin to engage more with the wider world, the world is telescopic. I love these books very much, but due to their 1960s modernity, they come across as a bit dated today.

With The Realms of Gold and The Middle Ground, Drabble begins to develop the style of her middle period which culminates with The Radiant Way Trilogy (which was how she and I fell in love, you see). These books, written from the late 1970s into the early 90s are concerned with vast themes and are sprawling projects, and here she invents her universe, the wonderful Drabble universe where I would love to take up residence and chat with Kate Armstrong and Alix Bowen, and meet Liz Headleand’s cat. Through this period, Drabble wrote the whole world, and captured contemporary England in a sad and desperate way. Rather than appearing dated, these works have managed to capture an era.

Since 1997’s The Witch of Exmoor, I get the impression Drabble has been bored by the confines of the novel, and has tried to push the form in different ways. She has also shifted her focus from “now” to “then”, delving much into the past– her own past in The Peppered Moth, or the life of a historical Korean Queen in 2004’s The Red Queen. Narratively speaking, she does funny things to her texts and leaves ends untied. I am not sure that critics universally love her later works, and I can’t begin to imagine how these novels might read to one who has never read Drabble before. But to me, who is so in love with Margaret Drabble’s writing, these works fit into a scheme whose development I understand by looking at the evolution of her work. I am not sure her intentions are always ultimately realized, but this is the same universe. Its writer is just looking in a different direction.

The Sea Lady is labelled “a late romance”. The story of Ailsa and Humphrey, who meet as children, meet again as adults and fall into a young love doomed to end badly, and the heart of this novel is their encounter in their sixties, after forty years apart. Humphrey is a marine biologist, and fish permeate the novel’s symbolism, but I didn’t find it tiresome. It seemed appropriate. The biological focus was particularly interesting, due to my interest in scientific literature. Ailsa is a media personality/feminist/art historian/sociologist, and a theme of the novel is the merging of science and the arts– if such a thing is possible, and what is that entity? The novel is structured around Ailsa and Humphrey’s return to the place of their original meeting, and their minds drift backward on their respective journeys. The ending of the novel is strange, twisting a bit shockingly/tidily, and the presence of the Public Orator, which many critics considered the novel’s real flaw, wasn’t troubling as much as it was weird.

But this is Margaret Drabble– her voice, her people, her universe. In some ways, this novel blends her three eras as much as any book she’s ever written. She is smart and the novel is bursting with facts– but not to prove her erudition, rather her passion for knowledge drives her to create a story from it. I think for the first time Drabbler, The Sea Lady would be perplexing in parts, but certainly not unenjoyable. And as a Drabble devotee, I will add it to the long line of Margaret Drabble novels on my bookshelf– a collection which means as much to me as all the other books in the whole library.

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