The Pure Gold Baby, by Margaret Drabble, Canongate £16.99 / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$26, 291 pages
Novels need to make a big splash these days. If they are to compete with the compelling attractions of TV drama series, or to have even a passing chance at any of the literary prizes or lead spots on the radio or in the press, it seems fiction writers either have to be famous or they have to go at it pretty hard.
So the books are bigger than ever before (think of this year’s 800-page Man Booker winner, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, and the host of recent doorstop-sized novels, from David Peace’s Red or Dead to Richard House’s The Kills). Or they are flashier (big-name authors such as Stephen King or JK Rowling pulling off the magic trick of a genre shift). Or there are more of them (a series by an author such as Hilary Mantel or Margaret Atwood). Or the books are hipper, or more technologically savvy, more “relevant”, stuffed to the gunnels with stories of money, the markets, soft porn and breaking news. What they seem incapable of being is subtle, quiet and domestic – that will just have everyone rushing back to Breaking Bad from whence they came …
Big and global can mean more sales, after all; a story set in New York, London and Mumbai not only triples the locations, it potentially triples the readers, too. A series of books has a built-in loyalty value that a standalone story can’t compete with; while topical news angles mean big review coverage.
Yet the novel should not just be about entertainment and three-for-two deals in the bookshops and being up with current fashions. It’s also about the simple pleasures of reading. The quiet, subtle and domestic novel can remind us, in a way histrionic fabulations can’t, of the texture of sentences, the sheer power of language. Stripped of big look-at-me subjects, the story becomes self-aware, dependent upon its telling for its power and gravitas.
There are writers around who speak, still, for this kind of writing: English author Rosalind Belben, with her beautifully matched novels, Hound Music (2001) and Our Horses in Egypt (2007), immediately comes to mind, every sentence sunk deep into the rural landscape, filled with the quiet individual and their animals, and pulsing yet with drama and emotion. Gabriel Josipovici’s Infinity (2012) is the furious tale of an enormous ego that is delivered, nevertheless, in quiet, modest tones. Giorgio Vasta’s Time On My Hands (recently published in English) is a secretive and slyly peculiar rendition of a childhood that is underlined with violence, yet delivered in a first person that never raises its voice. In America, Jayne Anne Phillips’ much-lauded new novel even bears the title of its intentions: Quiet Dell.
Margaret Drabble, a master of the quiet novel, has spent half a century crafting sentences and finely measured paragraphs that give back the pleasure of a particular kind of spoken English – reserved and self-deprecating, sliced through with social acuity and knowingness. Since her 1963 debut A Summer Bird Cage – which deals with the relationship between two sisters – Drabble has written in a way that seems to be inviting us into something private, showing the experiences of ordinary women, letting us get closer to her story in increments, as though page by page we are gaining her trust. She has kept faith with understatement all along.
Drabble’s latest novel, The Pure Gold Baby, so quiet and reserved it could be no more than a murmur coming through the open window of a north London terrace, is the opposite of an action-packed drama. It reads more like a series of drafts that the reader needs to gather together than the usual fictional package. Delivered in sections of differing length, connected only by a loose chronology, a story gradually takes shape but it’s a subtle one, revolving around the lives of a group of friends with a mother and daughter at the centre – Jess and her magical, “pure gold” baby, whose condition is never entirely revealed. “The quality of this small girl child was not at first evident … Her mother, Jess, was happy at the birth … Her daughter proved to be one of the special babies. They smile at strangers, when you look at them their response is to smile. They were born that way, you say, as you go thoughtfully on your way.”
We see this child grow up, and her mother grow old, as her small society changes around her – women reflecting together on their professional, sexual and social status, meeting, talking, marrying and divorcing. The cadences of the prose, the kind of language used, the words that are chosen, echo the passing of the years. The unnamed narrator, supposedly a good friend of Jess, a woman who we may be tempted to think could even be Drabble herself, is poised between looking back over an easier, looser youth and forwards to an emptier, older time. She uses the present tense of “late middle age” and writes of a certain segment of London society, much like the intellectual, liberal milieu that Drabble herself inhabits.
There’s nothing fancy about this kind of writing. The author is not seeking to create perfectly burnished prose that will show off its topic or to stud her explanations with arch similes and wry humour. But how well Drabble shows the real grain of her subject. The overall effect is dangerous and threatening because what we realise, after reading books such as The Pure Gold Baby, is just how brutalised we’ve been by the easy entertainments of louder, more obvious novels. These quiet tales with their quiet resolutions, sometimes with no resolutions at all, and little in the way of plot and action and counteraction, are so much more challenging in their style and delivery than anything we may meet in the average page-turner.
Yet quiet novels do tell big stories – every bit as absorbing as the other kind and possibly even more so to those who love reading, who value an actively engaged and always changing processing of ideas and images. That’s because, as Drabble’s new novel so clearly tells us, their real story is about fiction itself – how it is made, what is true and what is invented and what is valuable about both.
It is a scary thought for the publisher trying to encourage novels that are as gripping and realistic as television, or the reader who wants to believe that those words on the page might have a certain moral or emotional trajectory, a pattern that will close with a nice, comforting ending. The spectre of Drabble’s enterprise hardens into fact with her narrator’s last lines: “I shouldn’t have written any of this. I hadn’t the right. Jess … doesn’t know I’ve been writing this. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell her.”
Could there be anything more destabilising to the safe complacencies of the contemporary novel than this obvious show of authorial power? Everything we’ve just read may not have been intended but it is there on the page, fixed in our minds – real to us because someone has made it seem to be so. You can forget about the death of the author, then, and trendy ideas about the autonomous nature of fiction. There is no novel at all, quiet novels tell us in the end, without the one who is sitting there at the desk, writing it all down.
Kirsty Gunn is author of ‘The Big Music’ (Faber)