This is the first book by Margaret Drabble I’ve read, but probably it won’t be the last. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while, it’s cover deceptively bringing to mind a summer beach read, with the pram parked on the verge of the beach. As I was spending the last few days of my Portuguese holidays on the beach in Espinho it seemed adequate, so I started reading it having no idea what to expect.
It is not a beach read in the usual sense, not a light and cheerful read, but it was a good book for me to read on the beach, as I had time and brain space to focus and let myself be taken into 1960s and 70s London. The book charts a story of Jess, a young anthropologist, who gets pregnant with one of her professors and decides to keep the baby, becoming a single mother. The story is narrated by one of Jess’s friends, when both of them are in their sixties. Telling this story allows her to reflect not only on Jess’s life, but also to consider their groups of friends and their wider environment from the historical and anthropological perspective.
Jess’s baby, Anna, is a sweet and lovely child, but with time it becomes obvious that she suffers from some sort of mental deficiency. Though suffers is not really the right word here, as Anna is an extremely happy child, bringing smile to everyone’s faces, always concerned with others, eager to help and eager to please. The narrator often compares Anna with other children in their group of friends, comparing their potential, the hopes their parents had for them and what had become of them. In all those stories Anna is a constant, she does not change, she exist in the permanent present.
Jess throws her whole self into the maternal obligation of caring about Anna, she wants to be the best of mothers. Apart from one travel to Africa in her youth she does not travel again for work. She becomes a study-based anthropologist, writing academic texts and articles for journals and press. But do not think Anna is a victim, or an epitome of maternal sacrifice and nothing else, she is also a wholesome human being with a complete life, just her priorities are set in a certain way after Anna’s birth.
Her relationships with men are also influenced by her overbearing bond with Anna. She has few of them throughout the years, but none of them is made to last. Anna’s affliction is never fully explained, but we know it makes her incapable to ever function on her own. It triggers an interest bordering on obsession in Jess to learn more and more about how society treats such people, how the theories evolved throughout the years, how a lot of care moved from institutionalized care to care in the community, exactly when the community ceased to function as a supporting mechanism.
The book uses Jess and Anna to also show a lot of the wider context. We get to know the life of what we’d now call a higher middle class in 1960s London. Our narrator reflects on their naivety on how the world changed, but also how the human condition has not changed much. Her observations about their younger selves are often sharp and ironic. She is equally unforgiving when describing all of them getting old and how unexpected it was.
The narrative sometimes feels disjointed, because of the frequent digressions of either anthropological nature or broader reflections on past and current society, but it was still a very good book. It touches on more topics than I can mention in a review of readable length. It made me think, it moved me, it read well, I didn’t want it to end. What else can one want from a ‘beach’ read.