Back in 2009, after a long and illustrious career as a novelist, Margaret Drabble called time on writing fiction, following her announcement with the publication of The Pattern in the Carpet, a kind of memoir through jigsaws that I have yet to read but which I’m told is very good. Surprisingly, then, this year saw the publication of a new Drabble novel but one which is apparently based on a true story. I wouldn’t have known that had it not been in the book’s press release and presumably Drabble was happy for it to be known but it left me wondering how many of the characters are based on friends or family.
It opens in Africa and closes five decades later in mid-air on a return journey from that continent. In between, Eleanor, the book’s narrator, tells the story of Jess, who we first meet as a young anthropologist transfixed by a group of young children suffering from a genetic deformity, her daughter Anna – the eponymous pure gold baby – and the friends they live amongst. Anna has an unnamed developmental disability which leaves her physically well, mentally a little slow, unable to look after herself but cheerful, trusting and loving – simple as her grandfather terms it. As Eleanor says of Anna ‘There was no story to her life, no plot’, which perfectly describes Drabble’s novel. It flows smoothly with the odd bump just as its characters’ lives do, chronicling social change through the lens of a set of intelligent, articulate North Londoners. Its particular concerns are the way in which we care for the less able and the mentally ill: from the hangover of the Victorian asylum with all its misery to Thatcher’s care in the community initiative to the comparative luxury of philanthropically funded care, with forays into R D Laing territory, stigmas associated with mental illness and parental worries. Africa is also a theme which runs through the novel – Jess continues to be fascinated by the ‘lobster claw’ children she encountered as a newly qualified PhD, Livingstone crops up frequently and she turns to Africa for Anna’s recuperation after a serious illness. All this may sound a little worthy, a bit dull, but it’s far from it. Drabble draws us into Jess’s life, eliciting concern for Anna and making us look at our own preconceptions. Eleanor is a convincing narrator, often reminding us that she is becoming older, that she may be misremembering – another theme which runs through the novel. It’s stuffed full of erudition – on art, literature, the history of mental health care – yet succeeds in retaining its humanity and compassion, and with it its reader’s attention.
At some point Drabble uses the word ‘millstone’ which set off a dim light bulb in my head: I had read her novel The Millstone many years ago and vaguely remembered that it was about a young single mother in the ‘60s whose baby was unwell – correctly as it turned out although Octavia’s is a heart condition fairly easily rectified. What I hadn’t remembered was that her mother’s parents were working in Africa. Which all sounds a bit familiar. And then again, the ‘true story’ line niggles away in the back of my head, never to be resolved I suspect.
The Pure Gold Baby introduced me to two new words which always makes me happy: ‘proleptic’ which occurs several times implying Jess’s concerns about Anna’s future without her and ‘allocentric’ when describing Anna’s personality. Have you come across any abstruse words in your reading recently?