Review Blog

Oct 03 2013

The pure gold baby by Margaret Drabble

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Text, 2013. ISBN 9781922147516.
(Age: 15+) Recommended. In Margaret Drabble's latest novel, The pure gold baby, the central concern is the relationship between Jess, a single mother, and her daughter Anna, the pure gold baby who is always happy but has an intellectual disability. Told by the first person narrator, one of Jess's friends, the story begins when Jess, an anthropologist, sees children with SHSF (either fused fingers or toes) playing near an African lake. She responds to them with tenderness, and comes to believe that this sight is a preparation for her own child's disability. Anna is a beautiful and sweet tempered baby, but does not develop as other children do. She cannot learn how to read or write, and as her baby friends grow she becomes more dependent on her mother and her mother's friends. Jess develops professionally, writes and studies, and maintains her friendships, even marrying, but increasingly the central relationship of her life is with her daughter. Drabble demonstrates the dilemma facing all parents of permanently dependent children. Should Jess put Anna into care? Should she live in sheltered accommodation? Jess tries a boarding school for her daughter but eventually both she and Anna are happier when Anna returns home. Jess eventually visits Africa again, with Anna, and realizes that her quiet days at home with Anna are what she now needs most. The passing of years allows Drabble to deal with another theme, the changing social milieu. Suburbs change, attitudes to child raising change, and, most importantly, beliefs about how to deal with disability and mental illness change. As an anthropologist Jess is aware of and studies the attitudes of those who try to improve the lives of others. Missionaries and psychiatrists and their theories about how best to deal with questions of treatment and care are of interest to her. Treatments have changed quite significantly since Anna's birth in the sixties, and there seems to be no one answer. Jess also maintains contact with those who do not live mainstream lives, perhaps as models for Anna's future. Drabble's final theme is that of mortality, of how our values change as we age, and of how particularly difficult such a process is for a parent with a dependent and disabled child. Written in measured sentences the book is easy to read and insightful about both the process of raising a disabled child, and the role of memory and hope in all lives. Drabble deals with what happens in her characters' lives but also tries to give an understanding about why they make the choices they do. It is recommended for older readers.
Jenny Hamilton

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