The Middle Ground
The reader who likes a novel to be tightly constructed with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end will be thoroughly frustrated with Margaret Drabble’s latest book. It has very little plot, enough characters to people a volume three times its length, and a narrator who periodically pauses to discuss the proper handling of the story. Those willing, however, to allow the author to take them where she will—from East London sewers to surrealistic plays to suburban dining rooms and into the minds and lives of dozens of individuals—will find themselves richly rewarded. Since 1962, when she published her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, Drabble has been analyzing contemporary English society, particularly as it affects the women of her generation. As she has passed from her twenties to her forties, so have her central characters, the young mothers and career women of Jerusalem the Golden, The Garrick Year, and The Waterfall giving way to the more mature and established Frances Wingate of The Realms of Gold.
Like The Realms of Gold and Drabble’s most recent novel, The Ice Age, The Middle Ground probes the dilemmas of characters in “the middle years, caught between children and parents, free of neither: the past stretches back too densely, it is too thickly populated, the future has not yet thinned out.” The book focuses on the lives of four men and women who are struggling to make sense of this difficult period—Kate Armstrong, Evelyn and Ted Stennett, and Hugo Mainwaring. Kate’s story is the central one, but her problems with her parents, her children, her work, and her sense of self are universalized as they are mirrored in the experiences of her friends.
All four grew up in an era when life seemed to hold order, meaning, and the possibility of progress. They threw themselves into causes that provided salvation of one kind or another and achieved affluence in the process. Kate escaped the confines of her East London background as a journalist writing about women’s issues. Evelyn became a social worker, fulfilling the expectations of public service handed to her by her prosperous, well-established parents. Ted elected to be a doctor, an expert on world health problems. Hugo embarked upon a career as an anthropologist, but after three months as a prisoner of the Kurds in Iraq, he found a more promising future as a writer on Middle Eastern affairs.
Facing middle age, all four question in one way or another the value of what they are doing. Kate confesses to Hugo early in the book that the women’s issues that have been her bread and butter now profoundly bore her: “I used to enjoy the smell of battle, but I’ve got sick of it, I’m really sick of it. I’m worn out.” Evelyn, too, comes to doubt her sense of vocation as she faces her instinctive distaste for the helpless elderly people she encounters and wonders why she goes on pushing herself to the point of exhaustion when she could so easily settle down in her comfortable home. The restlessness of the two men is less tied to their work but no less real. Ted, who has broken off his relationship with Kate, his mistress for several years, and with the Cambridge woman who succeeded her, feels, as he flies to one in an endless series of international medical conferences, “a black cavern of growing dislike, largely for himself.” Hugo has recently lost an arm in an encounter with a grenade in Ethiopia. He refuses to have an artifical limb, preferring, Drabble suggests, to appear helpless. He feels a sense of relief that he no longer has to prove his manhood; “nobody expected him to play at being a limbless war hero.” He is in a kind of limbo, however, marking time by acting as confidant to Kate and worrying over his once beautiful and still possessive mother who is suffering from severe arthritis.
As Drabble moves back and forth between past and present events in the histories of these characters, she interweaves fragments of the lives of their children, their parents, their brothers and sisters, acquaintances, colleagues—even characters from at least two of her earlier novels. In so doing, she gives the reader a sense of the density of “real” life, of the multiple, multi-generational ties that bind most people during their middle years.
These minor characters, almost Dickensian in their eccentricities, provide much of the vitality that makes this novel such a delight. Among the most memorable of Kate’s companions are her father, a retired sewer worker fanatically committed to the value of his work; her agoraphobic, obese mother, imprisoned in front of her television set by her passion for respectability; the drunken, aging bohemian, Hunt, who helped Kate escape her East Romley origins and periodically appears on her doorstep intoxicated; Mujib, her serious, inquisitive Iraqi boarder, a student she has taken in at the request of an old friend, his Lebanese fiancée’s mother; little Rubia Subhan, an eight-year-old Pakistani girl, streetwise and mature beyond her...
(The entire section is 2065 words.)