When I was younger, I read all Margaret Drabble’s books as they came out. I stopped after The Radiant Way; somehow the books had just lost their appeal. I don’t know what attracted me to The Pure Gold Baby, as I hadn’t read any reviews, but it was a Kindle Daily Deal, I thought I couldn’t go wrong for 99p and snapped it up. I’m so glad I did, because I spent much of the past weekend reading it, totally absorbed.
The book is narrated by Eleanor, looking back to a time when she and her friends were all young marrieds with children, living in north London in the sixties and early seventies. This is revisiting the world of Drabble’s early books like The Millstone, so there’s a lot of reflection on the lines of ‘as we thought then’ and how things have changed (not least, the value of the houses they bought so cheaply). Eleanor tells the story of Jess, an anthropologist who, as a result of an affair with a much older academic at SOAS, has an illegitimate baby, Anna. Anna is the ‘pure gold baby’, the sweet, loving innocent , one of les enfants du bon Dieu, who will grow up to be a child-woman, always dependent. There’s no suggestion that she’s a millstone though; Jess willingly devotes her life to Anna.
No one can define Anna’s condition; it’s not Down’s, nor autism (Drabble is rather caustic about how fashionable autism becomes), just a birth defect which means she will never fully develop, ‘another way of being human’. This gives the author a splendid opportunity, in her discursive way, to examine changing attitudes over the years to mental illness and disability and how much they are due to current vogues amongst the responsible professions. Better or worse, she ponders? Safe in a large asylum (possibly mistakenly confined) or placed under the euphemistically described ‘care in the community’? While continuing to work on anthropological projects when she can, Jess researches this history of care. Always in the background is her early experience in Africa, in what is now Zambia, and her fascination with the ‘lobster claw children’, children born with webbed hands and feet due to an inherited gene. They are happy. Are such differences better accepted in such societies than in the enlightened and scientifically advanced west? This is no plea for the noble savage, but something which continues to fascinate Jess.
At the time of writing, Eleanor herself is widowed, her children and those of her friends have grown up, moved away. Yet the little group of friends keeps in touch. The story moves between nostalgia for the idealistic days of youth and the sweet innocence of their children and the ever present knowledge of mortality: ‘We become, in our latter days, unnecessary.’ It’s a book without chapters, a book of constant flow, which is probably what kept me reading so quickly. If it were a first novel by an unknown writer it would be hailed as remarkable. I hope readers will not be put off The Pure Gold Baby because they think they already know everything Margaret Drabble has to say.