One might say that the narrator of Margaret Drabble’s novel is an anthropologist of sorts.
Perhaps that would be misleading, however:
“Anthropology is full of strange spirit stories, about shamans and witchcraft and night ridings and animal shape-shiftings, stories which hover between myth and fairytale and religion and tribal memories of historical events, between belief and denial. Many of them feature dwelling places and domestic utensils, but none has ever, as far as Jess knows, named anything as banal, as friendly, as everyday, as a saucepan.”
For there are more saucepans than shamans in The Pure Gold Baby.
Readers of the novelist’s earlier works would perhaps have laid bets on the saucepans over the shape-shiftings anyhow. Nonetheless, the author, like the subject of this novel, did share some of Jess’ experiences.
“Although I did go to Africa, once. I went to Central Africa. I have seen Lake Bangweulu and I have seen the Zambezi. I saw the lake and the swamps. I saw where Livingstone died. I saw where his heart was buried.”
The novel is primarily the story of Jess, but it is named for her daughter, Anna. She is the pure, gold baby. Hers is the strange spirit story.
Jess does not tell her own story, however; nor does she write Anna’s.
“I’ve learnt new ways of looking from Jess. She continues to find ways of employing her sociological and anthropological expertise.”
Another voice relays the events of Jess’ life. But what does this mean?
“When we look back, we simplify, we forget the sloughs and doubts and backward motions, and see only the shining curve of the story we told ourselves in order to keep ourselves alive and hopeful, that bright curve that led us on to the future. The radiant way.”
(Isn’t it lovely when a writer seems to nudge readers directly? The Radiant Way: perhaps Margaret Drabble’s best-known novel, the first shining curve in a trilogy.)
Who is narrating: who is this ‘we’?
“We are all adept at rewriting the past, at reinventing it. Perhaps Anna was the result of a one-night stand, or of a liaison with a fellow-student of which Jess was ashamed, and which she had decided to disown.”
Which ‘we’ is rewriting, reinventing?
“This is how we like to see her, our Jess, the shining one who did not lie and did not falter.”
And what right do ‘we’ have to see Jess in any particular way, to tell her story?
“I shouldn’t have written any of this. I hadn’t the right.”
What about this perspective lends the voice credibility (if anything)?
“I haven’t invented much. I’ve speculated, here and there, I’ve made up bits of dialogue, but you can tell when I’ve been doing that, because it shows. I’ve known Jess a long time, and I’ve known Anna all her life, but there will be things I have got wrong, things I have misinterpreted. Jess and I talk a lot, but we don’t tell each other everything. There are things in my life of which she knows nothing, and she has her secrets too.”
What about motive and intent?
“We watched, we waited, I would like to think without too much malice or Schadenfreude, although of course none of us are malice-free.”
And what does it matter anyhow?
“Anna, as we have seen, made no progress at all. She was becalmed. There was no story to her life, no plot.”
Readers ultimately do not edge very closely to either Jess or Anna. The narrator observes, studies, presents.
“They will let the experiment run for a few months more, I think. They are keeping notes on us, you know.”
Anthropologists observe. Doctors observe. Mothers observe. Neighbours observe. Novelists observe.
“Anna was not like nobody else on earth. She was Little Stupid, the Simple Sister, the Dumb One, the Idiot Girl, the Pure Gold Baby.”
The Pure Gold Baby considers the plotless life of Jess and Anna; it also brushes against questions about mental health and conformity, commitment and betrayal, friendship and loyalty, and parenting and identity. Perhaps it’s more about shape-shifting than it appeared to be at first glance.
“Our children were so good, our hopes for them so high. Goodness seemed to be their birthright. How could any of them go astray.”
“Maternity had become by chance her destiny.”
“We would rather blame genes than defective child-rearing, we would rather blame genes than the vengeance of the lord. We pass the buck.”
“Stumbling blindly with its pots and pans, the human race. She sees it stumble on.”
Have you read The Pure Gold Baby? Or, another of Margaret Drabble’s novels?
The Pure Gold Baby is my latest IFOA Wednesday read: great fun.