This blog is not supposed to be a review of my reading; nor is it supposed to offer recommendations for others. This is just as well, because although I can see that Margaret Drabble’s novel is expertly written, it was an uncomfortable read that I would struggle to recommend, especially if your leisure time is short and reading is a part of your escape. Rather, this is a site for making connections between artistic portrayals of the world and the discipline of social policy. So, while I found this read sometimes frustrating and anti-climatic, what I want to explore here is my unease with the book.
This is the story of an anthropologist (Jess) and her daughter (Anna) who has learning disabilities. However, this is not told by either of the main protagonists. In some ways this is entirely appropriate as they form the polar opposites of a spectrum when it comes to the ability to tell stories. Anthropologists are often privileged to tell the stories of others, whilst people with learning disabilities are rarely allowed to have a voice. However, this was the source of my discomfort and possibly also the strength of the writing. As Czarniawska (2004: 5) says:
“… other people or institutions concoct narratives for others without including them in a conversation; this is what power is about”
This is a book of several stories, of intertwined lives through family and friends but this is also a book about what makes a reliable narrator. How can a narrator gain credibility?
My discomfort began with the first few paragraphs which begins with the gaze directed at Central Africa and a group of children with ‘deformed’ feet. Africa acts as the preface and postscript of the novel. Africa is a massive, diverse continent that is also often talked about in single terms and done to, rather than allowed multiple voices and agency. Yet it is also an exemplar of how authority is gained to speak of others experience. This is colonialism: a political, social and psychic structure (Nayak, 2015). Therefore, the narrator of this novel feels entitled to use Africa metaphorically to say something about experience and social connection. We recognise Africa as a metaphor for the unusual, the exotic, possibly frightening, yet because it is combined with disability and childhood, it can also stand in for native innocence, for the unspoiled, the pure, the uncivilized. Do you feel my discomfort too? Can I trust a narrator who provides the vagueness of location with the specificity of a genetic disorder? Yet the writing is assured. It is full of the observational details that give credence to anthropological writing; that can state “I was there” (although this narrator was not there but is reporting on another’s adventures).
Colonialism is also a useful prism through which to explore one of the main themes of the book – learning disability. Again the trick is to look at what is offered to show expertise or legitimacy in discussing the experience.
The book offers historical discussion, considering the different opinions of conditions over the ages, possibly tracing a progressive history. There are a number of insightful observations about residential and institutional care of those in need of support. There are scholarly accounts of the ‘feeble-minded’ and the asylum system. There are case-studies of George Austen (Jane’s brother), Carol Buck (daughter of once-famous novelist Pearl Buck), Arthur Miller’s abandoned son and many others. There is an examination of genetics, of care, of medical labels.
It also offers a comparison with other children:
“My children must have annoyed her. Jake and Ike were good with Anna when she was little… I tried not to make tactless remarks or comparisons. But I must have done. I know I must have done.”
This is not to say that the narration is not sympathetic and the melancholy towards the end of the novel about the very real concerns about what will happen to Anna when Jess dies is poignant, thoughtful and draws attention to the issues of non-familial care for people with learning disabilities.
A key tool for the credibility for this narrator, however, is the attempt to absence herself from the text. This becomes less tenable as the novel progresses and her own concerns about life, loss and maternal anxiety come to the surface, but it is not until the second half of the book that she is named, (Eleanor/Nellie). And the reader becomes aware that the attempt to narrate the story of Jess and Anna says more about Eleanor and her reflection on motherhood. Yet in doing so, she also manages to erase Anna’s agency.
“Anna, as we have seen, made no progress at all. She was becalmed. There was no story to her life, no plot. The concept of progress did not apply to Anna.”
Of course the narrator is using the tricks of authority that academics (including social policy academics) have always used – history, case studies, theory, comparison and authorial voice. And like academics that split between the narrating and the experience is not always possible to maintain. Feminism, in particular, has drawn attention to the form as well as the content of academic practice. The absence of first person, is not necessarily the same as absence of bias. Writing other people’s stories is a power exercise in itself. However, this is not to say that feminism is simply about putting experience above theory.
“This serves as a basis for authenticity that, by definition, is divorced from the tools of critical analysis” (Nayak, 2015: 67)
What this book does is draw attention to his the way that histories are drawn. The mechanics of writing someone else’s history become more apparent towards the end of the book. It asks us to remain vigilant about power in telling someone’s story and representing their needs as reflections of our own. I started by saying I would not recommend this book if you are looking for warmth and escape. However, it is intelligent and perceptive and I’m glad I made the effort.
Czarniawska, B. (2004) Narratives in Social Science Research London: Sage
Drabble, M. (2014) The Pure Gold Baby Edinburgh and London: Canongate
Nayak, S. (2015) Race, Gender and The Activism of Black Feminist Theory: Working with Audre Lorde Hove: Routledge