Canongate, £16.99 or Order at a discount from The Independent Bookshop

Book review: The Pure Gold Baby, By Margaret Drabble

Through one mother-daughter bond, this novel traces the journey of a generation

"She would be what she would be – a millstone, an everlasting burden, a pure gold baby, a precious cargo". In Margaret Drabble's superb new novel, a richly complex narrative voice achieves a choric magnificence hardly equalled in her earlier work. The Pure Gold Baby considers, with saturnalian humour and elegiac sorrow, how far the author's generation has come, along "that bright curve that led us on to the future. The radiant way."

Get this book at the discounted price of £13.99 from The Independent Bookshop or 0843 0600 030

At the story's centre stands a mother-child diptych, a secular pietà, reprising but reconfiguring familiar motifs. Like Rosamund in The Millstone (1965), a young professional woman – in this case an anthropologist, Jess – becomes pregnant, struggling with the demands of single motherhood. The baby is "pure gold", not despite but because of her developmental difficulties. Anna will never leave home; never read or write. Her life has no plot. She lives within the moment, an indwelling presence in the novel, which writes itself around her.

The narrator, Eleanor, is Jess's close friend. As they approach old age, she has privately elected to write the intimate story of Jess and Anna. She is "I" – but sometimes also "we": "We worried for her, we, her friends, her generation, her fellow-mothers". She directs her observations to or at "you", the reader. Although the narrator is an eyewitness, her perspective is full of holes: iffy assumptions, confabulations, misinterpretations, secrets Jess has chosen not to share.

What Eleanor has to tell is a love story, but primarily neither eros nor agape. Love is understood in two senses, as mother-love and as friendship between mothers: "Jess has given the large part of her life to exclusive and unconditional and necessary love. That is her story, which I have presumptuously taken it upon myself to attempt to tell."

Warts and all, Eleanor might have added. We are aware of the narrator's shortcomings as well as Jess's, and Katie's and Maroussia's: what George Eliot might have called their "spots of commonness". They are representatives of a disputatious female intelligentsia who have stumbled through every mistake of their generation. The story is told in loops and swerves, recapitulating, prefiguring.

There are passages of amazing emotional power, expressive of the narrator's passionate protectiveness: the novel extends its wings over Anna. In a moving opening section, Jess is shown in her first field trip to Africa, before Anna's advent, responding to the sight of children with the disease "then popularly known as Lobster Claw syndrome". This awoke in Jess what seems to the narrator a proleptic "tender spirit of response... The maternal spirit had brooded on the still and distant waters of that great and shining lake."

But the narrative voice doesn't hold back. It has learnt from Jess a deadpan anthropological lingo to denote the curious tribal behaviour of its own North London community. Like any friend, Eleanor has her cruel insights. She notes Jess's self-deceit as she consigns the pure gold baby to a special needs school. Whose needs? "Anna is a lucky girl," goes the refrain. Really? We fear for Anna and the story's ironies stealthily build up that apprehension, for Anna – like all the novel's children – is at the mercy of flawed and cloven human nature, which offers at best "good enough" mothering.

The Sixties generation "tried to look through the doors of perception. We thought there was something to see, on the other side." Lunatic social experiments confound themselves in laugh-aloud humour. The funniest and saddest scenes expose the imbecilities practised in "therapeutic communities": "This is the continent of Dr Nicholls... We are in his protectorate."

The Pure Gold Baby thinks profoundly on living in time, where, as we look back from the closing season of our lives, "all seems fore-ordained and fore-suffered and yet all is unfinished and unknown".

The novel reflects on how to live well. We don't really know. We do our best. It isn't good enough. It's all we have.

Stevie Davies's new novel is 'Awakening' (Parthian)

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all