Book

By chance, this is the second Margaret Drabble novel that I have read in recent weeks. I came across a second hand copy of the 1965 The Millstone in Paris a few weeks ago, a book I had not read for some decades.

The Pure Gold Baby was first published in 2013. Having just read two Margaret Drabble novels written almost 50 years apart, I can see both what seduces me in her writing, and also what can challenge the reader. Drabble’s prose tends to have minimal dialogue, and is both intense and dense in terms of content and word. Yet, to skip over a sentence or a paragraph renders the reading experience incomplete and much less satisfying.

As a result, reading The Pure Gold Baby, although a relatively short book at less that 300 pages, takes time and commitment. Which it deserves.

The novel tells the story, narrated by a friend, of Jess and her daughter Anna, the gold baby of the title. Anna was the result of a short affair between Jess, an academic and an anthropologist, and her professor. A delightful and good-natured child, it slowly became apparent that Anna had developmental problems – she was clumsy, uncoordinated, slow to walk and to talk, and never mastered reading. There was no definitive diagnosis, but a vague label of ‘learning difficulties’ and ‘special needs’, which necessitated alternative schooling and an inability to lead an independent life, hovered over Anna’s and Jess’s lives:

‘Anna’s condition did not seem to answer with any precision to any known conditions. Like the shoebill, she was of her own kind, allotted her own genus and species. She did not suffer from any metabolic disorder, of either rare or frequent incidence. Brain damage in the womb or at birth was not ruled out, but could not be confirmed…An obvious genetic cause was sought in vain.’

Anna’s problems were not immediately obvious, especially to strangers. As a result, no leeway was given to her, which caused much anxiety for Jess as well as confusion as to the extent to which she should protect her daughter from the insensitivity of others.

The story largely concerns Jess’s life as she watches over and protects her much loved daughter. Drabble’s narrative style fascinates – not just how she unfolds the lives and thoughts of her characters, but also the details she delivers on the society that her characters inhabit.

The Pure Gold Baby is set in an earlier mid/late 20th century England – ‘We didn’t known about cholesterol then. It hadn’t been invented’. It is also the tail-end of the era of asylums. Colney Hatch, the Friern Barnet asylum that had been purpose-built in 1850 was being slowly decommissioned at the time; ‘Colney Hatch’ at the time had become slang for ‘barmy’. There is also reference  to ‘the experimental programmes of R.D. Laing’, and his community based management of schizophrenics at Kingsley Hall:

‘ ‘Yes,’ said Susie, ‘Kingsley Hall was Liberty Hall, that’s what I heard. No rules, no discipline. The patients did what they liked; they didn’t have to take their medication if they didn’t want. They could stay in bed all day if they fancied. They could paint the walls with shit if they wanted.’ ‘

In part a social study against the backdrop of the evolving narrative of the lives of Jess and Anna, the novel also contains many literary and anthropological references, including Melanie Weiss’s Bagration Island, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, and the writings of Proust and Wordsworth amongst many others.

The ‘new forms of asylum, of the communities of the mad where the sick were reborn or, as a phrase of the day had it, rebirthed’, took on a personal significance for Jess when her friend, the ‘depressed poet’ Steve, attempted suicide. Steve successfully recuperated in a new 1960s therapeutic unit in Essex. This event poignantly highlighted a significant different between Steve’s condition and Anna’s – ‘There was material in Steve’:

‘Anna’s condition was not very interesting, except to Jess. It lacked drama and progress and the possibility of a surprising or successful outcome…Whereas Steve was in need, and might respond to a cure, and in a suitable haven, recover.’

Much happens and challenges the day to day lives of Jess and Anna. But theirs is not an unhappy or ultimately sorrowful story:

‘I will leave [Jess and Anna] in mid-air, but you will know that they landed safely…’

Earlier, the narrator shares a more fatalistic viewpoint while listening to 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.’

The Pure Gold Baby is a rich, textured and complex book. At the very least it is a story of mothering, of the challenges that face those who do not fit into our idea of ‘normal’, and of what loving and being loved can overcome. The personal also interweaves with a social and anthropological narrative.

I was consumed and enriched by the sum of much more than 291 pages of text.

 

CQ

 

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