Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

A happy little girl will always need special care

How wonderful it felt, how relaxing, to open this book and feel in the hands of the master. The opening passage is a beautiful blend of description and mystery (although I did have to look up the word “proleptic.”) A young anthropologist in Africa, Jessica Speight, contemplates the happiness of tribal children suffering from a genetic deformity of their hands. Years later Jessica becomes the mother of a child, Anna, who will never learn to read or write. A pure gold baby. The novel recounts fifty years of their lives, and becomes, rather than a traditional novel driven by plotted conflict between the characters, a social and historical commentary. It is a meditation on growing older, mental illness, Dr. Livingstone proselytizing in Africa, and whether perhaps life has a structure or a meaning only visible at its close.

The story is about a mother’s love and the disabled daughter’s necessary immense trust in the mother. Once Anna receives her diagnosis as a toddler, her mother’s hopes of continuing her career the way she had envisioned are over, but Jessica never seems to resent the child/woman who shadows her. The novel is narrated, not by Jessica, though several passages seem from Jessica’s point of view, but by a neighbor, one of a circle of female friends. An interesting woman (who seems to have a sort of Margaret Drabblish kind of history) who goes on interesting tangents. Tangents about London neighborhoods, real estate prices, the evocative story of Livingstone’s death, the sad story of Camille Claudel confined to an asylum. This medley worked for me, but I could see how other people would find it draining the narrative tension. The descriptions were beautifully written.  There were quasi religious overtones here. Life has a pattern and perhaps when you are at the end of your life you see the pattern. Will the world be a lesser place when the births of pure gold babies, intellectually deficient people who love without suspicion or demands, are eliminated?

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