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October 29, 2013

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Pure-Gold-Baby-200x300The Pure Gold Baby is Margaret Drabble’s first novel since 2006’s The Sea Lady, and her first book since the memoir The Pattern in the Carpet in 2009. Her first novel since she claimed to have quit writing fiction, with a new publisher after she claimed that Penguin was “dumbing her down”. It’s a novel that it’s impossible to regard outside of the wider context of Drabble’s oeuvre, which even the book itself makes implicit. Page 19 makes reference to “the radiant way” and “a millstone”, which suggest the titles of two earlier Drabble novels. Late in the book, a passage: “A wider view, an aerial view, an uplifting view, a view of the river, a view of time, a view of the shores of the infinite.” Which reminded me of a passage I underlined in The Middle Ground a long time ago: “…London, how could one ever be tired of it?… When there it lay, its old intensity restored, shining with invitation, all its shabby grime lost in perspective, imperceptible from this dizzy height, its connections clear, its pathways revealed. The city, the kingdom. The aerial view.”

One has to take an aerial view of Drabble’s career in order to make sense of The Pure Gold Baby. Because it’s a curious book, and all her books have been curious lately. But let’s start at the beginning, with her first books during the 1960s, usually about young educated women living and working in London. She was a very fashionable writer, the kind Barbara Pym judged herself against unfavourably during her own wilderness years. The fashionableness means these books are dated now, but they have literary merit. Drabble has always been prescient too about social trends–she wrote about single motherhood early in The Millstone, she anticipates the modern media-scape in A Natural Curiosity.

Her perspective broadened during the 1970s and 1980s, much concerned with both the domestic and with wider social trends. Her Radiant Way trilogy is the story of England, the story of everything, a time of great social turmoil and changes, documented in the lives of the characters she made so real.

Since the late 1990s, her books have become very unconventional, stretching the shape of the novel with remarkable elasticity to encompass such largeness: questions of time, genetics, globalization, history. With every book, one gets the sense that she is asking herself again just what the novel is capable of doing. I don’t think Drabble has the credit she deserves as an experimental novelist. She is far from content to write the same book over and over, and seems rather determined to reinvent the book every time, though her preoccupations remain constant.

The Pure Gold Baby reads like a culmination of sorts, the Drabble universe encapsulated. We have a single mother in 1960s’s London, but she takes these characters right up to present day, employing that aerial view, that stunning omniscience she started playing with in the middle of her career. And then the narrative strangeness t00–it’s puzzling. This is the story from the perspective of a woman who pieces together her friend’s history over decades, through stories she has heard, rumours, long and drawn out conversations. Why is she telling this story? We never really know–even she doesn’t know. What do we learn about her, this character who is only named once or twice. Why does she matter?

The centre of this story is Jessica Speight, an anthropologist who a gives birth to a daughter she raises on her own, the pure gold baby of the title. It eventually becomes clear that all is not as it should be with Anna, that she has some kind of unnamable developmental problem–she’s a bit clumsy, a bit simple. Her existence and her affliction come to shape the trajectory of her mother’s life, and here Drabble is pondering motherhood, its questions and problems. Though as ever, her interest is genetic. From where did Anna come from? Jess is not forthcoming with this information, and it causes our narrator to wonder, questions about errant genes.

Or is the origin something else, and here is where the story begins–with a group of children with malformed hands by the side of a lake in Africa where Jess had encountered them years before Anna was born. We’re returned to this point again and again, and Jess makes the voyage back to Africa near the end of the book. It’s kind of an inverse Heart of Darkness, as though Africa were the heart of light, the light that emanates from people like Anna, humanity at its most basic, simple. Which is a bit racist and also reductive in terms of regarding disability, but then whether this is a hypothesis or conclusion is never clear. This is the kind of novel in which characters are allowed to be wrong.

It’s such a strange novel: we are taken through the decades of a group of mothers in London and learn which marriages ended, which children succeeded, which others went wayward (and how there was no telling of who would be who). This is a novel about friendship, and how we tell each other stories, about how we become characters in the stories of one another’s lives. It’s about mental health, public health, institutions. It’s a novel full of facts, pages of passages that read like non-fiction. It’s about progress, and the illusion of progress.

Pure Gold Drabble, is what it is. And so naturally, I loved it.


One thought on “The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble”

  1. Tanya says:

    Thank you for placing this book within Drabble’s larger oeuvre. I too found it to be a strange book, but it was also the first Drabble I have read, so i didn’t have the context that you did. What is interesting about the book is the way it has stuck in my head. I didn’t think I liked it at the time i read it, but it does seem to haunt me in a good way.

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