02 December 2013

Everything about this book has grown on me

The Pure Gold Baby
Margaret Drabble

At first I didn't like the cover. I also wasn't so sure I liked the title. I'm not sure what I thought it referred to, but it evoked nothing for me. The anthropologically focused opening paragraphs left me wondering why I spent good money on a hardcover, something I almost never do. And although I like Margaret Drabble, I have discovered recently that my fondness for her work can't be universally applied to all of her novels.

So what happened? First I discovered that the pure gold baby refers to Anna, a sweet and well-loved developmentally disabled child. Normally I am one to feel uncomfortable around disability, but there is something about both Anna's sunny disposition and Drabble's unflinching honesty about her that made me embrace not only the pure gold baby, but The Pure Gold Baby as well.  Suddenly the title seemed brilliant and the cover of the American first edition came to life. (Had I even recognized that the seemingly bland cover art was the silhouette of a young girl?)

The novel is narrated by Eleanor, a friend of Anna's mother Jess. In fact, the story is less about Anna and more about Jess, her career, her friends, her lovers, and the world they inhabit over the course of fifty-odd years. Into the tale Drabble deftly weaves in the aforementioned anthropology, issues surrounding disability, institutionalization, changes in health care, aging, mortality, and even the meaning of life.

The product of an affair with an older married professor, Jess' love for Anna and the support of her friends (and the NHS) help soften the difficulties of being raised by a single mother. And each of her friends have offspring who are Anna's playmate and have their own potential for success and failure. Drabble's narrator inspires an optimism that makes me want to be a parent. (Indeed passages in this book are like antidotes to the despair that pervades Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child.)
Our children were so good, our hopes for them so high. Goodness seemed to be their birthright. [...] How could any of them go astray? The gap-toothed boy, the pure gold baby, the freckled fox girl, the dusky little despot, the white-faced flower, the luminous lamb, the lion charmer. [...] They were all beautiful, all good, all in bud. Even Andrew, subject as he was to spasms and to fits of incoherent rage, was beautiful, and full of undisclosed personal promise.
Of course nothing in life is as sunny as that and Anna and every other character in the book face challenges along the way.
Our little children, what becomes of them? They set off so innocently on their long journey. It is hard to bear, it is hard to grow old and see the children age and suffer. It is hard to see them grow bald, and estranged, and some of them lonely.
Knowing next to nothing about how the learning disabled learn, I was fascinated and grateful for Drabble's many little inclusions about such things. And knowing a bit about mental asylums (remember I wrote a book about one...), I was fascinated by her explorations of various institutions in England and the changes in how mental illness has been treated and mistreated over the years.

Fascinating for bibliophiles, Drabble also explores the lives of "problematic children in less enlightened times" including Jane Austen's brother George, Arthur Miller's Down's syndrome son, Kenzaburo Oe's disable son, Pearl Buck's daughter Carol and other authors dealing (or not dealing) with disability.

As much as The Pure Gold Baby is about any of these things it is also a long slow discovery of life. What we are all doing here, where we will all end up, and what it all means. Not only did I find much in this book profound, I was also taken by all of the mundane details of a life and society that is no more. This is kind of a "in the good old days" kind of moment for me, and I think, probably for Drabble. Not that everything in the good days is good, and there is certainly plenty in the bad old nowdays that is infinitely better.

When Simon and I contemplated our most recent episode of The Readers I was inspired by the early parts of The Pure Gold Baby. When I came across a description of the town hall in Islington I googled it to see how well Drabble did. Based on the image search I did, I would say pretty well. So full of interesting details and factoids, there were many moments I wanted (and did) look things up online. What I didn't realize is the importance that the the power of the Internet would play later in the book. As the characters age they find the Internet reconnecting them in ways they never could have imagined. Drabble also contemplates how the digital footprints of the notable people in the recent past (just before the Internet) are often more obscure than their older, equally (in)consequential peers. (Kind of like my 'discovery' of the designer of those Barbara Pym covers.) The narrator contemplates a poet Jess knew in her twenties.
[His] name seems to have faded from the literary record, his early promise unfulfilled. [...] he seems to have slipped away into obscurity [...] You can find his name through the web -- you can find almost anyone's name through the web -- and there are some early poems there [...] There is no surrounding integument of critical discourse, there are no links feeding his poems out into a living network. His work is islanded in the recent past. It has not yet hooked up with the expanding  interconnecting digital world. Minor Edwardian poets with their entourage of minor commentators and minor biographers and minor research scholars are better connected than he. He is in a limbo, in the land of the unreborn.
Jess herself would experience a fraught moment that was created and solved all with a bit of googling. A moment that would not have had the same immediacy twenty years ago before the Internet became what it is today.
Jess knows that she ought to google the Professor, to see if he is alive or dead. The depth of her terror at the thought of initiating this act, this investigation, scares her, and interests her. [...] She has procrastinated for so many years, and during these years technology has altered beyond any possible expectations. All she needs to do is to type in his name.
I know many of you are like me and like things a bit on the old fashioned side. We think longingly of card catalogs, rotary phones, and typewriters. So for you, I plucked out some of the more innocuous moments of the glorious past, and others from the inglorious present, that make appearances in The Pure Gold Baby.

  • Katie worked part time at Bush House for the BBC World Service, reviewing new poetry from the Commonwealth and chairing a poetry quiz.
  • Everybody was photographing everybody else with mobile phones, in the bizarre self-referential mode of the third millennium ...
  • Why had she never been back to Africa? She could have cajoled a friendly editor, in the days when there was easy money in print journalism.
  • That useful if vulgar and irritating little phrase, that journalistic, cheap-popular-psychology phrase 'comfort zone' hadn't existed in those early days ...
  • I tried Radio 4 and listend for a while to a soothing well-balanced programme about solar energy and wind farms, then moved to Radio 3 and wintry Sibelius. The natural world would survive us whatever we did to it. We could cement and tarmac it over and turn it into a motorway a mile wide, but it would break through in the end. That's what Sibelius was telling us.
  • Soon Jess and Bob and Anna will be in the Jacaranda Hotel, in reach of mobile-phone signals and texts and newspapers and news. What will have happened while they have been away? There has been time for births and deaths, scandals and revelations. The banks may have crashed, governments may have fallen. [...] But she was trying to put these irrelevant updates on the world out of her mind and to let it drift back over Africa.

The Pure Gold Baby is by no means a perfect book, but I found it full of wonderful prose, fascinating details, and much to contemplate in the days to come.


  1. I wasn't keen on the narrator of the book, I felt she got in the way of Jess and Anna's story. But GOSH you are so right, the prose is incredible!

  2. I certainly need to pick this on up. I'm sending your review to our collection development librarian to see about purchasing this for our library collection. We have large education and mental health departments on campus and sometimes they assign students the task of reading fiction about people with differing abilities.

    Side note -- I read The Fifth Child when I was pregnant with Atticus. Atticus was a large baby and kicked me quite hard. Thus The Fifth Child was -- for a time -- the most terrifying book I ever read.

  3. My wife has just finished proofreading my own review of this novel but it won’t go live until January 5th. I was quite taken by the book right from the start. I really didn’t expect to be but more than many books I’ve been sent of late I found myself actually looking forward to the next time I could pick up the thing. Very easy to review too. Took me no time at all. Don’t like the cover in your post. Prefer Canongate’s black and white cover but neither really captures the essence of the book for me. One thing I did wish is that she’d made clear exactly what was wrong with Anna. I could see no good reason not to.

  4. I was sent this and must admit I really want to read it as it is what I do support people with learning disabilities ,all the best stu

  5. Her fiction has never tempted me, but I thought her memoir "The Pattern in the Carpet" was brilliantly odd. I can't say I loved it, but it was so well-written and discursive that I couldn't put it down.

    I have an antique rotary-dial phone. It's our house phone here at home. Has a lovely bell. Just had to mention that.


  6. Monika: I thought the telling of the story at one remove away was kind of fascinating.

    Amanda: Oh, the Fifth Child. I think my review explicitly warns off fertile women.

    Jim: I had so many passages tagged that I did have a little trouble narrowing it all down and trying to make the review even vaguely cohesive.

    Stu: I think you will find it interesting.

    Sarah: Try Seven Sisters. I have tried Carpet in fits and starts. When our house reno is done sometime late next year I want to get a rotary phone for my library.

  7. I'm looking forward to reading this one. I loved Drabble's Radiant Way trilogy but haven't read all her books. I'm glad she decided to write another novel after saying she was retiring from writing fiction a few years ago. I just listened to an interesting conversation with MD about TPGB on BBC4's Open Book. It's the Nov 11th episode if you want to listen to the podcast (which also includes a fascinating discussion on WWI novels with Sebastian Faulks & Helen Dunmore).


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