I’ve been reading a recent novel by Margaret Drabble, The Pure Gold Baby, which I didn’t find by searching for novels about mental illness, though I have been reading rather a lot of those, since I want to see what else has been written besides the books I have been writing. I was reading Drabble, because she is one of my favorite authors and someone I have written about at some length. I had just read her most recent novel and realized that there were a couple that she’d written since I last read one, so I wanted to catch up.
I’ve let this lapse happen, because I think, in general, her later books are not as good as her earlier ones were, and I definitely think that Pure Gold Baby follows this pattern. There are long sections where nothing of any substance occurs and there’s a great deal of near repetition. Drabble is making a point here, which is that the life of a family with a special needs child is likely to be highly scheduled and lacking in a lot of dramatic action for the parent. The parent needs to be available to parent.
The ideas here are interesting, but they don’t seem to gel into fiction. As with Drabble’s other novels, readers are given quite a lot of background information, here about the history and current state of treatment options for the mentally ill and developmentally delayed. These are delivered as research that Jess, the titular “baby’s” mother, is doing largely out of interest created by daughter’s condition.
It’s never quite made clear what the condition of the main character’s daughter is. Drabble says that Anna doesn’t have Down Syndrome, but she seems permanently at a very young mental age in terms of her intellectual capabilities and her understanding of what is going on around her. She spends time at an institution and time being cared for by her mother at home. Drabble’s point seems to be that she is fortunate in that her disability leaves her, on the whole, happy. She becomes anxious sometimes, but she is not a depressed person like some of those her mother meets in the various institutions she visits. She is pleased by small things. But in the end, there remains the question of who will care for her after her mother dies.
I found the descriptions of the way that England has worked with their mentally ill interesting, though they didn’t quite blend in. Anna doesn’t have a condition that requires medication, and another person that her mother becomes involved with, Steve, is treated by a doctor who is using an approach that does not involve medication, so there is not much discussion of medication in the novel. Drabble does talk about the use of institutions, relationships between doctors and patients and issues of aging. She has discussed institutions in a number of her recent novels, a topic that really interests me. Her most recent novel discusses aging and how the state responds to the aging in England.
Drabble has always been a novelist interested in taking on political issues, and perhaps because this is a novel centered on Anna, a girl and then a woman, who not only can’t understand such issues but becomes anxious if she’s exposed to them, they remain repressed throughout much of the novel, as though we’re tiptoeing around what we don’t want the children to hear. Direct communication is also difficult, because large parts of the novel are told through the first person point of view of Anna’s mother’s friend who is not present for a lot of the action but hears about it later from Anna’s mother or some other friend.
Overall, I’m glad I read this novel, even though I wouldn’t rate it nearly as highly as a book like Drabble’s Gates of Ivory. The topic is especially interesting for me at this time, though. Others may find the flaws simply annoying and put the book down.