Margaret Drabble’s new book, The Pattern in the Carpet, as she explains on the first page, is a cross between a memoir and a history of the jigsaw puzzle. It looks at first like a cozy book, full of idyllic reminiscences of a slower and more rural way of life. And in fact, it describes how Drabble’s Auntie Phyl “taught us to peg rugs, and to sew, and to do French knitting, and to make lavender bags, and to thread bead necklaces, and to bake rock cakes and coconut fingers, and to play patience.”
Fans of jigsaw puzzles will learn where they appear in the work of Jane Austen and how they developed from the “dissected maps” once mounted on mahogany to teach children geography.
But take care before you send this book to your own kindly aunt. Under the comforting surface is something much more disquieting (a word that recurs in many different contexts). Because jigsaws, for Drabble, are one of the many ways that people cope with solitude, boredom, depression, aging, and the inevitability of death.
“I used to think until quite recently that one would grow out of mental pain,” Drabble writes. “One would simply become, towards the end, too old and too numb to feel it.” But with advancing age and the examples of friends and acquaintances around her, she has begun to doubt this. (Drabble writes as if she were quite old, though she turned 70 only this year.)
As a young mother, Drabble found that keeping busy was an antidote to depression. “Bringing up three children, working and writing to support the family and pay the mortgage, cleaning, shopping and cooking, left me too busy to sink too low for too long. I began to think that brisk activity, followed by a stiff whisky, could cure anything.” Only later did she find that a family legacy of depression couldn’t be shaken that easily.
Readers of Drabble’s fiction know something about this. A long line of awful mothers – intelligent, cold, resentful, depressed – runs through her novels. “The Witch of Exmoor” presents the most colorful version and “The Peppered Moth” the most true to life and seriously explored. “In ‘The Peppered Moth’ I wrote brutally about my mother’s depression, and I never wish to enter that terrain again. It is too near, too ready to engulf me as it engulfed her.”
Members of Drabble’s family – including her sister Susan, better known as the author A.S. Byatt – were unhappy with the way they appeared in this and other novels. This negative reaction, together with her fear that a fading memory might cause her to repeat herself, led Drabble to decide she would write no more fiction.
Writing a history of the jigsaw puzzle offered a way out. “I envisaged a brightly coloured illustrated book, glinting temptingly from the shelves of gallery and museum shops ... I would become a jigsaw expert. It would fill my time pleasantly, inoffensively.... I would write a harmless little book that, unlike two of my later novels, would not upset or annoy anybody.”
It didn’t work out that way, she says. Her husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd, became seriously ill, and matters of family and mortality worked their way into the text.
In a couple of places in this book, Drabble makes statements that could damage her reputation among those who don’t already know her work. “I have never been a tidy writer,” she says at the outset. “My short stories would sprawl into novels, and one of my novels spread into a trilogy.” A reader who didn’t know otherwise would never suspect from this that her novels are masterpieces of psychology, characterization, and social observation, or that the trilogy that begins with “The Radiant Way” is one of the high points of postwar British literature.
Drabble’s novels grow more organically than the tightly plotted, sometimes airless, work of a writer like, say, Iris Murdoch. They make room for the strange secrets and bizarre coincidences that crop up more often in life than in fiction. Her powers of connection and truth-telling are on full display in “The Pattern in the Carpet,” as she explores the links between childhood games and family history. Even the nesting habits of the California wood rat are discussed, and made to seem relevant.
This is an odd book, one of a kind, like Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” almost 400 years ago. It may puzzle the puzzle fans, and upset (again) Drabble’s family, but it will take the reader on a journey unlike anything else in the bookstore.
Geoff Wisner is the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa.”