THE GATES OF IVORY by Margaret Drabble


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So comfortable has Drabble become with the baggy formula for her our-gang novels (The Radiant Way, Natural Curiosity) that here she even appends a bibliography, a list of actual books that her character, as well as their creator, might have read to negotiate the present work's concerns. Liz Headland, the London psychiatrist of the earlier two novels, has received in the mail a package from the Far East. It's from Stephen Cox, the novelist--and apart from jottings and stray drafts, it contains a human finger bone. Cox, intrigued by the fanaticism of the Khmer Rouge, has made his way to Thailand, then Vietnam, and hopes to go further into Pol Pot's former heart of darkness. Back in London, Liz sifts through the fragments hoping to find a weave--and when she doesn't, she feels she must herself find Cox, from whom no one's beard anything for a long time. Her search dovetails through near-disaster (toxic-shock syndrome in a Bangkok hotel) with what she discovers has been Stephen's demise by illness deep in the Cambodian jungle. Drabble, ever the schematicist, jumps blithely from Liz's London overcivilization to Stephen's dread-filled voyage into primitive evil, scattering contrasts as she goes. Paradoxically, what saves the book from the triviality of its predecessors is this moving-finger-of-fate approach. Here, it mostly works. Attitudes are overarched by pity and terror; individual lives seem movingly fragile against the forces of chaos. Still, Drabble's global, sampling manner is frustrating. In sections about the Far East here, she writes as a novelist--particular, definitive, surprising. Most everywhere else, she is at the lower flame of the journalist/littÉrateur, telling us what we know already.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1992
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Viking