New books — From the November 2013 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online

The title of Margaret Drabble’s new novel, The Pure Gold Baby (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), refers to “Lady Lazarus,” a poem Sylvia Plath wrote a few months before she committed suicide: “I am your opus, / I am your valuable, / The pure gold baby.” Plath does not appear in Drabble’s novel, but she is perhaps the unnamed presiding spirit, the character Drabble looks back to as she portrays the lifeworks and working lives of several women (and a few men) who set out in the early Sixties to make a difference in the world — and who now find themselves reconsidering their early choices. Drabble’s protagonist is Jess Speight, a young anthropologist who, on a trip to Africa, encounters a tribe of children with unusual toes:

When she saw their little bare bodies, their proud brown belly buttons, the flies clustering round their runny noses, their big eyes, their strangely fused and forked toes, she felt a simple sympathy . . . a kind of joy, an inexplicable joy.

Jess is having an affair with her professor, and she soon gives birth to a girl, Anna, who turns out to have significant learning deficits. Jess can’t return to Africa; instead, she must nurture her child as best she can while navigating the ever-changing perspectives on mental health in the second half of the twentieth century.

“Bourgoyen Early Autumn,” by Catherine Nelson. Courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York City

“Bourgoyen Early Autumn,” by Catherine Nelson. Courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York City

Drabble’s narrator has her own career, and a few of her own troubles, but writes as a reliable friend and witness to Jess’s efforts. Her style and tone are brilliantly conversational and, well, female — practical. Toward the end of the novel, Jess remarks that her house, for which she paid £6,000, is now worth £800,000. The narrator is not surprised — hers is worth more than a million. She writes, “Through no fault or virtue of our own, Jess and I had appreciated. By sticking it out in our everyday way, we had become rich.” Drabble’s eye is for intimate detail, daily worry. Her larger point — that Jess’s life has meaning precisely because it is a modest life — grows out of scenes and confidences shared. The book’s big revelation, when it arrives, is almost too small for the narrator (or the reader) to believe, while its potential dramas — a poet’s suicide attempt, the jailing of a friend’s son — disappear into the fabric of the tale.

Novelists once rarely lived long enough to record the perceptions born of age; Drabble has always been an astute observer, and she enters this new country with eyes wide open. “I don’t know why life seems emptier when one is older, even when it is full,” she writes in The Pure Gold Baby. “It thins out, like the hair of one’s head.” Perhaps Drabble is murmuring to the ghost of Plath that there was no need to take it all so seriously — life is larger than we thought, more interesting, but not as fearsome:

The natural world would survive us whatever we did to it. We could cement and tarmac it over and turn it into a motorway a mile wide, but it would break through in the end . . . It’s not a good message, for us. But I’ve ceased to care about us.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 3

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
undefined

More from Jane Smiley:

New books From the September 2013 issue

New Books

New books From the July 2013 issue

New Books

New books From the May 2013 issue

New Books

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.