Drabble (A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, 2011, etc.) enfolds the moving personal story of a single mother’s care for her mentally disabled daughter within a somber narrative of aging families and declining social optimism.
Anthropology student Jess Speight’s affair with a married professor resulted in Anna, born in a National Health hospital that “is now a moderately expensive hotel for foreign tourists.” (One of the novel’s themes is the contraction and decay of a once-expansive welfare state.) Anna is “a pure gold baby,” sweet and happy, but it soon becomes clear that she is severely developmentally delayed and will never be an independent adult (no exact diagnosis is given). The unnamed narrator, one of the other mothers among the young families in their North London neighborhood, chronicles the way Jess’ life is shaped by her daughter’s needs—she separates from both a husband and a lover when she decides the men interfere with her commitment to Anna—and also traces the trajectory of their community: Kids grow up and marriages break up, some people move to more affluent areas as North London fills with more recent immigrants, everyone gets older and sees their futures shrinking to a decreasing number of days and possibilities. Jess remains haunted by memories of a field trip to Africa, where she observed physically deformed children functioning well within their accepting tribe; the novel closes with her and middle-aged Anna taking a trip there with her husband (still a friend after decades of separation), who snaps a photo of Jess kneeling among some local graves. “She is old now, and she is in the process of transfiguration....Time has come full circle, and the river flows with time.” The Victorian explorer David Livingstone, William Wordsworth’s poetry, Auguste Rodin’s sculpture and Marcel Proust’s novels all play a part in Drabble’s deeply intellectual, though never pretentious consideration of our intricate connections and obligations to others.
Thoughtful and provocative, written with the author’s customary intelligence and quiet passion.