The Malta Independent 28 January 2023, Saturday
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Searching for the missing novelist

Noel Grima Sunday, 4 December 2022, 09:26 Last update: about 3 months ago

‘The Gates of Ivory’. Author: Margaret Drabble. Publisher: Penguin Books / 1991. Pages: 464pp

Novelist Stephen Cox was last seen some two years previously when he vanished to the East. Since then there had been postcards. Then silence.

Now his friend Liz has received a strange parcel that contained jottings, bills, pictures ... and some bones.

Enlisting the help of his friend, beautiful and scatty Hattie, Liz begins to decipher the trail of the man who once might have become her lover.

This is, in synthesis, the outline of Margaret Drabble's 1991 novel, the third and final book of her Headleand Trilogy following The Radiant Way (1987) and A Natural Curiosity (1989), both already reviewed on these pages, which follow the lives of three women who had met at Cambridge during the 1950s. These three books are, respectively, the ninth, 10th and 11th book she wrote.

In all, she has written no less than 17 novels plus a memoir and a collection of short stories, screenplays and plays as well as non-fiction, two biographies and critical studies.

Drabble was born in Sheffield in 1939, the second daughter of the advocate and novelist John F. Drabble and the teacher Kathleen Marie. Her elder sister is the novelist and critic A. S. Byatt and her youngest sister is the art historian Helen Langdon. Drabble's father participated in the placement of Jewish refugees in Sheffield in the 1930s.

Drabble's books include The Millstone (1965), which won the following year's John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and Jerusalem the Golden which won the 1967 James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

A recurring theme in her writings is the correlation between contemporary English society and its people. Most of her protagonists are women and the realistic descriptions often derive from her own personal experiences.

Her first novels describe the life of young women during the 1960s and the 1970s, with the conflict between motherhood and intellectual challenges being brought into focus.

As the late Hilary Mantel wrote: "Drabble's heroines have aged with her, becoming solid and sour, more prone to drink and swear, yet with each successive book their earnest, moral nature blossoms."

Her characters' tragic faults reflect the political and economic times of the Thatcher years and before and after that.

This book focuses on the years of the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam - all forgotten today as the world faces new challenges and traumas. All those millions killed by Pol Pot in so many jungle massacres are forgotten today as the countries involved turn over a new page, perhaps exemplified in the quaintly described Miss Porntip and her erotic and capitalistic adventures. Stephen Cox and his companions exemplify the media circus floating around the edges of a world gone mad.


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