New books — From the November 2013 issue

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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.

Graham Robb, author of Unlocking Mallarmé and Parisians, has a talent for looking beneath the surface of landscapes as well as lives. One result of his turn of mind is his brilliant 2007 book, The Discovery of France, in which he explores (literally, by bicycle) the regions of the country formerly cut off from one another (and from Paris) by geography, language, and culture. While researching that book, Robb writes in The Discovery of Middle Earth (W. W. Norton, $28.95), he “read about an enigmatic name — Mediolanum — which the ancient Celts had given to about sixty locations between Britain and the Black Sea.” He also happened to be living in a cottage near Oxford where shards of past ages turned up as a matter of course, where mysteries like the Uffington White Horse — a 374-foot-long geoglyph incised into a hillside during the Bronze Age and filled with chalk rubble — abounded. Robb began examining his maps in a new way: Gaul, he noted, was not exactly linked together by the Roman roads of standard histories. Instead, the romanization of Celtic Gaul during and after Caesar’s Gallic Wars depended on, and papered over, an earlier culture that was much more sophisticated, both technologically and philosophically, than historians have realized. Beneath the Roman roads lay a system of Celtic roads and settlements that had been planned according to mathematical calculations of the solar angle at the summer and winter solstices and that for hundreds of years sustained a complex culture stretching from Ireland to the Balkans. In fact, Christianized Romans of the Early Middle Ages expropriated holy Celtic sites and figures and turned them into monasteries, convents, and saints — for example, the Celtic “god Lugh acquired chapels dedicated to a ‘St Luc.’ ”

Robb is most focused on establishing the geographic validity of his thesis — that druidic calculations of the angle of the sun at the summer solstice underlie much of the way modern Europe is laid out. The most important of the primeval roads was the Heraclian Way — allegedly the route traveled by Heracles when he performed his twelve labors. Beginning at Sagres, the southwestern-most point on the Iberian Peninsula, it travels in a more or less straight line through Narbonne and Nîmes to the Montgenèvre Pass in the Alps. Robb suggests that Heracles was actually the Celtic god Ogmios subsumed into Greek myth. Once the Heraclian Way is mapped, the rest of France, followed by England and Wales, then Ireland, falls into place, and certain enigmas are illuminated, such as why first-century b.c. Celtic coins with horse motifs have turned up in a network of digs across Europe, and why Celtic walled settlements in Britain and Gaul are awkwardly shaped (rhomboid rather than rectangular). “Why would carpenters and roofers whose wooden houses were greater feats of engineering than any Greek or Roman temple have tolerated such a poorly drawn and inconvenient plan?” Robb asks. The answer is “spectacular” even to him.

Toward the end of The Discovery of Middle Earth, Robb is gratified to discover that some of his ideas are now being independently proved (or at least supported) by evidence from the field. The spot where the Celtic queen Boudica seems to have crossed the Thames, following a solstice line, is “a site of no apparent interest” — except it turns out that on just that spot stood a fortress of “earth ramparts and deep defensive ditches” predating Roman Londinium by hundreds of years. Fear of “treasure-hunters” has forced archaeological authorities to keep the site secret since its discovery in the 1980s. Revelations must, of course, be received with some skepticism, but The Discovery of Middle Earth is an intriguing and stimulating read by an author whose previous works have been, one after the other, precise, self-aware, and enlightening.

One of the books I found most informative and most perversely enjoyable this year is one I missed in May, Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, $40). It deserves, and rewards, careful reading; so rich is it with cross-referenced scholarship that it must be consumed in small doses. Global Crisis does not concern itself with the causes of climate change but instead does something much more frightening: it details the political ramifications. Like Robb, Parker makes use of tools both scientific (studies of ice cores, tree rings, stalactites and stalagmites, deposits of pollen and spores) and historical (harvest records, parish registers, documentation of revolutions, wars, and famines) to paint a novel picture of a familiar world. Parker situates the 1649 beheading of Charles I of England, for example, in its ecological context — the “Little Ice Age” that engulfed the world during the seventeenth century. Between the years of 1617 and 1651, this global shift caused flooding in Catalonia; heavy snowfall in Fujian province; the wettest European summer in five hundred years; a “perfect drought” in northern India; thirteen years of flooding and drought in the Canadian Rockies; the coldest year ever recorded in Scandinavia; the freezing of the Chesapeake Bay; and ice floes that impeded the progress of the barge carrying Charles’s body up the Thames, an event followed by 226 days of precipitation in other parts of northwestern Europe.

The important question is not the cause of the chill (volcanic eruptions and reduced sunspots are two of many suggested culprits) but how governments and their populations dealt with it. The answers are not reassuring. The first was to look for scapegoats, the second to invade neighbors and take their possessions, and the third for the people to rise up against the government. Drought and floods led to crop failure and disease, which led to war and revolution, which led to the deaths of an estimated third of the world’s population. Only one state addressed the crisis effectively — early Tokugawa Japan. Parker makes clear that Shogun Iemitsu succeeded in reforming the nobility and civil service so that the population of Japan survived and even grew through the seventeenth century (he instructed that large stores of grain be set aside in years of plenty and forbade the growing of cash crops instead of food crops in lean years). But the population of Japan was already small as a result of the century of war that had put the shogunate in power.

Perhaps the most gruesome chapters are those that trace the English, Scottish, and Irish civil and religious wars. Parker offers telling quotes: “In 1652 an English soldier in Ireland reported that ‘You may ride twenty miles and scarce discern anything, or fix your eye upon any object, but dead men hanging on trees and gibbots.’ ” The arrival of famine conditions just at the time when the three populations were most riven by religious disagreement meant that divine self-justifications were ready to hand, and armies had no reservations about being brutal.

Global Crisis presents us with a challenge: it implies that we should worry about the consequences of global warming as much as its explanations, at least if we want to avoid the bloody havoc of the seventeenth century. Parker shows us that the population must be fed, that agriculture focused on profit eventually fails, that a starving population cannot be overtaxed to preserve the privilege of the few, and that devastation that is predictable must be prepared for (he writes of the barrier completed in the Thames in 1982, at a cost of £534 million, to preserve London from flooding; the property it has protected is now worth £200 billion). I am not the only one who missed Global Crisis — it has gathered only a handful of reviews on Amazon. But it is one of the best and most important books of the year. Every bureaucrat should have a copy. I’ve already started to reread mine.

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