Several years ago Margaret Drabble announced that she was retiring from writing. With a novelist as prolific as she many were tempted not to believe her. And they were right, for Drabble has just come out with her latest novel The Pure Gold Baby. I have not read any Drabble before this book, so I cannot judge how it compares to the rest of her oeuvre. What I can say, however, is that I found The Pure Gold Baby to be a rather odd book. That is not to say that it is not a good book. It is a dense book, replete with literary references and illusions. I think it would be one of those books that only gets better as one studies more. Notables such as Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare and Pearl Buck make repeated appearances in the telling.
At first glance the story appears to be the type of thing I tend to like: an anthropology graduate student gets knocked up by her professor, decides to keep her baby and leaves him in the dust. The story spans the greater part of Jess and her daughter Anna’s life together. Anna initially appears to be a rather normal, happy child – a pure gold baby. As she and her cohort age, it becomes increasingly noticeable that there is something different about Anna and that she will never mature past the age of about five.
The oddity of the novel comes in the narration of it. Initially it seems straight forward enough. The story of Jess and Anna’s life is told by a friend of Jess’s. But as the novel proceeds there is something about this voice that seems a little off. I don’t know how to describe it. At times I thought the story was going to turn out to be more about the narrator than Jess and Anna, but that never came to fruition. It remains a very banal telling of the life of one family as observed by an outsider.
Who would like this book? I think The Pure Gold Baby is tailor made for a book club with a decidedly literary bent. I am quite certain that most of the cleverness of the novel went right over my head since my knowledge of the classics is not where it should be. This novel would also appeal to “those of a certain age”, that is to say people who were procreating in the late 60s and early 70s. In many ways it is a story about a certain time. Views on children with differing mental capacities, women working outside the home, and advances in healthcare were not what they are now.