Numbers Game

Margaret Drabble’s The Gates of Ivory is the third novel in a trilogy. The first was The Radiant Way, published in 1987. It began with a New Year’s Eve party given on December 31, 1979, by a successful London psychiatrist called Liz Headleand. The new novel ends with another of Liz’s parties. Same caterer, same guests, give or take a few. Only this time the party is a luncheon following a memorial service: an end, not a beginning.

The Radiant Way was a state-of-the-nation novel about the early Thatcher years in Britain, a cry of anguish and rage at the decline of a fairly decent society into heartlessness and squalor. Drabble took a serial murder known in the tabloids as “the Notting Hill rapist,” renamed him “the Horror of the Harrow Road,” and used him as a symbol and symptom of what was wrong with Britain. The Gates of Ivory is about what is wrong with the world:

This is a novel—if novel it be—about Good Time and Bad Time. Imagine yourself standing by a bridge over a river on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Behind you…all the Good Times of the West. Before you the Bad Time of Cambodia.

A character in the novel attributes the concept “Good Time and Bad Time” to George Steiner; another “thought it came from William Shawcross. (Both were right.)” The authorial intervention is a regular Drabble device, a postmodernist link with the tradition of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. We know George Steiner, of course. As for William Shawcross, he is a journalist specializing in Southeast Asia, a “young man with curly hair…the son of the British Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg.” His book, The Quality of Mercy, appears in a bibliography at the end of Drabble’s book, and he himself lines up with more, or less, completely fictional characters by the border bridge. The Gates of Ivory is a historical, factoid novel: the bibliography proclaims that. The subjunctive in the qualifying “if novel it be” proclaims that literary standards are to be maintained.

The main story is simple. In her bijou house in St. John’s Wood, Liz Headleand receives a package from Cambodia which contains two small finger bones and scraps of writing—diaries and notes for a novel by Stephen Cox, a writer whom she had thought of marrying two years earlier. At that time he was about to set off to gather material for a book about the Khmer Rouge. He has never been heard from since, and the packet is accompanied by an anonymous note which sounds like a cry for help. Liz consults, among others, Alix Bowen and Esther Breuer, friends from her student days at Cambridge with whom she shared The Radiant Way on equal terms, but who have been relegated to bit parts in the new novel. She decides to go to Cambodia to look for Stephen, gets as far as Saigon, discovers that he has died …

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