British writer Margaret Drabble’s latest novel, The Pure Gold Baby, is an intellectual feast of themes that provokes readers to think about mental disabilities, ageing, and difficult choices that people make between nurturing others and achieving their own potential. This may sound grim, and in fact not everyone will like the pitiless honesty of this book and the powerful, disturbing language with which its messages are delivered.
The novel spans most of its protagonist’s adult life. Jessica Speight is an anthropologist whose career begins promisingly with a trip to Africa that she never forgets. In particular, she is struck by observing a group of happy children with fused fingers and toes. The children seem unaffected in any way by their abnormality.
Soon after this trip, Jess becomes a single mother, the result of an affair with one of her married professors. Though her daughter Anna, “the pure gold baby”, has a sunny temperament and is easy to care for, it soon becomes apparent that she is developmentally disabled. Although Anna is socially adept and well-liked by other children, she will never be able to read or acquire the skills to take on any kind of job.
Jess becomes a “city anthropologist”: she makes a decent living writing scientific articles, but does her research only in libraries. Anna is the focus of her life.
The Pure Gold Baby is told from the point of view of Jessica’s neighbour Eleanor, one of the mothers of the children in Anna’s playgroup. This narrator reminds me of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Like Nick, Eleanor is not a main character in the story: she is an observer and, in a sense, a worshipper of someone quite unlike her. Jess is beautiful and has unusual affairs with men, whereas Eleanor is married and never strays from her husband. Jess is also more educated, well-travelled, and sophisticated than Eleanor. Yet Jess has the unusual burden of Anna, and the reader senses that Eleanor is thankful her life is more “ordinary” than Jess’s.
Hearing Jess’s story from a narrator who is an observer rather than an intimate friend gives the novel a curious atmosphere of detachment. Eleanor is somewhat like an omniscient narrator because much of the story is given from her point of view as an older woman, decades after many of the events she describes have occurred. By then, Jess has confided in her a good deal.
Yet Jess always remains something of a mystery woman. She is described as being “sexually obsessed” with Anna’s father, but we never learn in Jessica’s own words how she feels about him. We are told only that she meets “The Professor” once a week for sex in a nondescript hotel. After a few years of this affair, The Professor and his wife leave England to continue their studies abroad and Jess never sees him again.
The Pure Gold Baby is unusual because it is not traditionally plotted, with rising action, a definite climax, and a resolution. It doesn’t present events selectively to create a neat, logical story. Instead, we see Jessica’s life as the messy, meandering path that real life usually is, with its mixture of intentional choices and decisions made by default (“going with the flow”), and relationships that change over time, often in surprising ways.
This unconventional structure contributes to one of Drabble’s themes: the way life has its unpredictable, uncontrollable, random elements. Eleanor comments that few of the neighbourhood children have grown up to fulfill what their childhood selves seemed to predict: the angelic boy turns bad and ends up in prison, and the mentally disturbed boy is given medication that allows him to live a “normal” life with a job, a wife, and children. Anna, however, has an almost completely predictable life: for her there can be no normal arc of becoming an adult with a family and career of her own.
Much of The Pure Gold Baby is permeated with a sense of sadness about the approach of old age, with its humiliations, disabilities, and regrets. It is Eleanor’s frank musings as an old woman that give the book its tremendous emotional impact despite the reader’s detachment from Jess.
In one section, Eleanor comments on her parents’ decision to sell the family home and buy a bungalow:
We call it downsizing now, but we didn’t then. We hadn’t yet coined that familiarising, patronising, dismissive, yet helpful term for decline and retrenchment, for the beginning of the flat, slow and then descending and accelerating march to death and the little, little room of the grave. (p. 137)
Eleanor reflects that young people never know that getting old is going to happen to them. She remembers going on a school trip to the Rodin Museum in Paris when she was seventeen. She saw Rodin’s bronze of an old woman (later she learned it was called La Belle Heaulmière, or The Helmet-Maker’s Once Beautiful Wife, amongst other names) and was “appalled and offended” by it.
Eleanor gives a horrifying description of Rodin’s sculpture:
She is drooped, sagged, imploded. She is passive. She is a passive recipient of the battery, the assault of time, and of the contempt of men. Her breasts are dry and dangle, her ribs stand out, her skin hangs in folds from her withering frame, her back is bowed in submission. (p. 141)
This section of the book haunted me.
Drabble makes this novel coherent not with a plot-driven structure, but through the interconnectedness of its characters and themes. Ageing is one process that disables us, but some people are physically or mentally disabled from the start, or become mentally ill. Characters with all these disabilities are part of A Pure Gold Baby, and through their stories Drabble shows the changing language, politics, laws, and treatments related to disabled people.
She also gives us fascinating tidbits about great writers who’ve had disabled children or siblings, and either obsessed about them or ignored them: she mentions Jane Austen, Pearl Buck, Saul Bellow, and Japanese novelist Kenzaburō Ōe, who won his Nobel Prize in large part (according to Drabble) “by writing painfully, brutally, repetitively, obsessively about his grossly abnormal son, his son whose brained oozed horribly out of a hole in his head.” (p. 161)
It is only at the end of the book that Drabble creates a neat structure by having Jessica’s story end with a trip to Africa just as it began with one. This time Jess travels with Anna. Jess has achieved progress in a sense by realizing that she doesn’t have to use Anna as an excuse for never returning to Africa. Yet the trip is anti-climactic too; Jess doesn’t see the children with fused fingers that have lingered in her mind for decades; nor does anything else of significance happen. There is no traditional ending.
We are left with a lingering sense of detachment and sadness—and much to ponder.
Quotes in this blog post taken from:
Drabble, Margaret. (2013). The Pure Gold Baby. Toronto: HarperCollins.