Point of view is key in a novel. Can you imagine “Lolita” told by a disapproving next-door neighbor instead of Humbert Humbert or “The Great Gatsby” narrated by Gatsby himself instead of spellbound Nick Carraway?
Margaret Drabble has chosen an unfortunate narrator for “The Pure Gold Baby,” her first novel since she declared she would write no more back in 2009. Eleanor, widowed and mostly retired from a worldwide charity organization, has chosen to fill her time, which feels thinned out “like the hair of one’s head,” by clandestinely writing about a friend from the close-knit circle of women who raised their children together in their North London neighborhood in the early 1960s.
The object of Eleanor’s interest is Jess Speight, a single mother who was sidelined from fieldwork as an anthropologist by the birth of her daughter, the pure gold baby of the title. Anna, the result of an affair with a married professor, is sweet-natured and obliging, but she has an unnamed developmental condition that bears some similarities to Down syndrome. Now in her 40s, she is still dependent on her stalwart mother, who chose to adjust her own life — working from home writing articles, holding lovers at bay — rather than institutionalize her daughter. Eleanor worries more than Jess does about what will happen to Anna when her mother can no longer take care of her.
As a narrator, Eleanor is repetitive and meandering. She hints at revelations and epiphanies that never materialize and glosses over more intriguing developments — including the arrest and conviction of another once angelic child in their circle for drugs, theft and fraud. We eventually learn that she is skeptical of revelations and drawing conclusions. She qualifies her narrative with disclaimers about her presumptuousness: “It’s none of my business. I don’t like to meddle,” she writes. (By the time she concludes, “I shouldn’t have written any of this. I hadn’t the right,” we’re ready to agree.)
We’re told repeatedly that Anna, “always an obliging child, was extremely anxious to please and appease”; she was “smooth, mild, benevolent.” Eleanor informs us twice within as many paragraphs that Jess “wasn’t a great beauty,” though she has no trouble attracting men.
More tediously, the narrative circles back repeatedly to Lake Bangweulu in Zambia, where, as a young anthropology student, Jess was mesmerized by the sight of children with a genetic deformity that resulted in lobster-claw hands. This experience is tenuously tied to her accepting attitude toward Anna’s condition and also to several peripheral characters’ mental health issues. Changing views about care of people with disabilities, shuttered mental asylums and questions about fate are also leitmotifs, though they fail to provide narrative traction.
The most interesting aspect of this painfully slow novel is its focus on how much the world has changed since those “tatty, ad-hoc, do-it-yourself old days” when “improvisation was in favour with the middle classes: au pair girls, amateur and cheap nursery groups, reciprocal child-minding.”
“We lived in an innocent world,” Drabble’s narrator declares. “We didn’t know about cholesterol then. It hadn’t been invented.” Admission to Westminster Abbey was free, all infants were born “pure and new and holy,” and Lebanon was preceded by a definite article, the Lebanon. Although comfortably multicultural, the North London of “The Pure Gold Baby” is cozily middle class, not the resolutely ungentrified council estates (low-income housing projects) of Zadie Smith’s recent “NW.”
This isn’t the first time Drabble has attempted to pull off a book narrated by an unnatural writer. Her tricky 2002 novel, “The Seven Sisters,” is also told by a woman for whom “Life has become sparse,” a woman at loose ends who tries to write her way out of a void despite a clear lack of literary flair.
In a career that spans 50 years, Drabble has written many far sharper novels that capture intelligent women caught between fealty to family, work and their own personal development as they navigate changing times. At its best, her work demonstrates trenchant social acumen as well as considerable wit and flair. Beginning with “A Summer Bird-Cage” in 1963, this includes “The Needle’s Eye,” “The Ice Age,” “The Radiant Way” and “The Peppered Moth.”
“The Pure Gold Baby” raises challenging questions about time, memory, causation, fate and randomness. In the end, Eleanor thinks that Jess’s interpretation of the significance of those African babies in her life is “just a bit too inventive about causation” and that she is “looking for meaning where there isn’t any.” Eleanor, on the other hand — as we well know after nearly 300 rambling pages — is “more resigned to the random and the pointless than Jess.” Readers may wish for a greater sense of significance.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Post, NPR.org, Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times.
THE PURE GOLD BABY
By Margaret Drabble
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 291 pp. $26