In 1960s London, Jess Speight, an anthropologist “by disposition and by training and by trade,” gets pregnant during an affair with an “emotionally arrested” married professor. She doesn’t bother asking him to meet his paternal obligations, deciding instead to cut off contact and raise her daughter alone.
When the “pure gold baby,” named Anna, is born in a hospital in Bloomsbury, she is adored and happy, and the local mothers “all saw Anna as a pretty, friendly, good-natured, smiling little thing.” Soon it becomes apparent that Anna is not like other children, that she is developmentally delayed: “She would be what she would be — a millstone, an everlasting burden, a pure gold baby, a precious cargo to carry all the slow way through life to its distant and as yet unimaginable bourne on the shores of the shining lake,” writes Margaret Drabble, setting in motion the events of her latest novel, “The Pure Gold Baby,” her first work of fiction since 2007’s “The Sea Lady.”
With her developmental delays, Anna is labeled as “special needs,” at the time a fuzzy diagnosis too often treated with a lack of tolerance and compassion. Although Anna is blissfully oblivious to the outside world’s judgments, her mother must constantly contend with the ignorance and rudeness of others and protect her daughter’s most basic rights.
Despite almost no dialogue in this novel and the author’s somewhat stilted use of first-person plural for the narration — “We worried for her, we, her friends, her generation, her fellow mothers” — Jess is a fully developed, sympathetic character. She’s fiercely independent, a good friend to others, wary in her romantic relationships (especially following a failed marriage), and a determined advocate for her daughter.
Because the story is told in the present day looking back over the decades — steeped in recollected conversations and observations by the close-knit community of mothers in Jess’s North London neighborhood — it feels less immediate, less urgent, as the reader is never directly in Jess’s head.
Yet Drabble manages to sustain interest throughout, partly thanks to the far-ranging philosophical musings of the narrator, a mother of two named Eleanor. She recounts yarns about the love affairs, divorces, deaths, and career triumphs and failures among this group of old friends.
She also looks at literary figures who struggled with developmental issues in their families, including Jane Austen’s brother George, who was illiterate and raised in a neighboring village; Pearl Buck, who supported her brain-damaged daughter; and Doris Lessing, whose son’s incapacities “remained undiagnosed, indefinable.”
Also compelling are the narrator’s asides on the historical debates about special-needs children — for instance, whether to educate them in integrated classes within the mainstream system or in isolation.
Although Drabble tosses in a frightening cancer diagnosis toward the end of the novel, “The Pure Gold Baby” is notable for its absence of melodrama. Ultimately, the book succeeds as both a social critique and a sensitive view of the agonies and joys of raising disabled children.
That said, the novel should resonate with anyone who has experienced the high-cost, high reward role of parenting: “Our little children, what becomes of them?” Drabble writes. “They set off innocently on their long journey. It is hard to bear, it is hard to grow old and see the children age and suffer.” Insightful and wise, “The Pure Gold Baby” chronicles the deep challenges of parenting under any circumstances — yet it also captures the almost unbearable vulnerability of being human.