The Pure Gold Baby

Margaret Drabble

The Pure Gold Baby
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The Pure Gold Baby

Margaret Drabble

The Pure Gold Baby will both raise you up and break your heart, as it follows Anna, a child of special, unknowable qualities, who also presents profound parental challenges. Over decades, we observe her touch the lives and loves of those around her.

Margaret Drabble writes with great beauty, wisdom and stealthy power about parenthood, about friendship and ultimately about the ways in which we care for one another. The Pure Gold Baby is a captivating novel from one of Britain’s most admired literary figures.


The ‘pure gold baby’ of the title is Anna, a baby born in the 1960s to anthropology student Jessica. Anna results from Jessica’s affair with an older, married professor. Despite the taboos of being a single mother, Jess commits to raising her daughter alone, and sets up a stable and loving home. When Anna fails to meet developmental milestones, Jess takes her for specialist assessment. The novel does not make clear in terms of diagnosis what is wrong with Anna, but it is clear that she is a ‘special needs child’. Despite this, Anna is happy, and she gets on well with everyone in the local playgroup and community.

The book is anthropological in its structure; Jess and Anna’s life is observed in a somewhat detached fashion by a couple of Jessica’s friends. The reader never hears directly from Jess and this can be frustrating at times.

Jess’s anthropological interests include the (1960s term) lobster-clawed children of Africa with whom she first became acquainted on an expedition to Central Africa. Her interest in difference, and its treatment, makes up a great deal of the book – as Anna’s needs change and Jess furthers her studies, she examines residential and day treatment for children like her daughter. Here Drabble provides a fascinating history into ‘asylums’, schools and even the language used to describe disability. Jess is also called upon to assist her severely depressed friend Steve, and through his story the history of ’60s and ’70s experimental psychology is examined.

As much as this book is about motherhood and particularly the courage of single mothers, it is also about community – namely, the way a community can band together to support the neediest. Jess and Anna remain in the same locality for much of their lives, and as memories and connections resurface, this is what ultimately sustains them.

Annie Condon is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn and a convenor of Readings’ Contemporary Book Club.

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