The Gates of Ivory

The Gates of Ivory

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by Margaret Drabble

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The Gates of Ivory is a vibrant, mesmerizing novel that juxtaposes the cynical, sophisticated realm of London against the dreaded world of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's Cambodia. In London, psychiatrist Liz Headleand receives an unexpected package, containing, among other things, a laundry bill from a hotel in Bangkok, old newspaper clippings, and two human


The Gates of Ivory is a vibrant, mesmerizing novel that juxtaposes the cynical, sophisticated realm of London against the dreaded world of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's Cambodia. In London, psychiatrist Liz Headleand receives an unexpected package, containing, among other things, a laundry bill from a hotel in Bangkok, old newspaper clippings, and two human finger bones. She recognizes the handwriting as that of Stephen Cox, who has been travelling in the Far East. With the help of her friends, Liz goes in search of the man who might once have been her lover, and gradually we learn of Stephen's difficult pilgrimage, from Thailand to Vietnam and, finally, Cambodia. Disturbing, wryly humorous, and deeply affecting, The Gates of Ivory brings two very different worlds into uneasy proximity, and the result is potent.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
``Why impose the story line of individual fate upon a story which is at least in part to do with numbers?'' asks Drabble in the middle of her follow-up to The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity. Instead of developing a conventional plot, the author casts a tone of irony (as sympathetic as it is subtle) over the daily affairs of Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen and Esther Breuer, the heroines of the previous novels, and synchronizes these with the efforts of Liz's friend Stephen Cox to make art from the unfathomable political holocausts in Cambodia--and with Liz's attempt to locate a vanished Stephen. As if underscoring her development of a form that ``offers not a grain of comfort or repose'' even as it engrosses the reader, Drabble reintroduces characters from The Needle's Eye only to declare that ``they have wandered into this story from the old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel, and they cannot mix and mingle.'' What seem mutually exclusive goals are realized: the characters are clear and compelling, objects of particular scrutiny; and the horrors of history are not trivialized by transposition to a tidily wrapped narrative. Drabble's achievement commands awe even as her subject matter rouses immeasurable stores of pity and terror. (May)
Library Journal
This is the end of a trilogy, begun by The Radiant Way ( LJ 10/15/87) and A Natural Curiosity ( LJ 7/89), that examines life through the eyes of Liz, Esther, and Alix, three friends who met at Cambridge in the 1950s. In this final novel, Liz appears as a counterpoint to Stephen Cox. Influenced by Conrad and his own work as a novelist, Stephen succumbs to an overwhelming desire to observe first-hand the antithetical world of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. His friends are skeptical, but no one becomes morbidly concerned until the relics of his journey arrive in a package for Liz. A fascinating mystery ensues, one that's sturdy enough to carry the full weight of sobering social commentary and political reportage along with it. Drabble structures the novel around divided narratives, rather than straight chronology, reasserting in the process her abiding interest in the complexities of human experience. A bibliography is included. Highly recommended. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/92.-- Janet W. Reit, Univ. of Vermont Lib., Burlington
From the Publisher
“Read this book.…A tour de force…For those of us who believe fiction can offer a reality and truth beyond that of non-fiction, this novel is not to be missed.”
Calgary Herald

“Artfully constructed and at times mordantly funny.”
Vanity Fair

“Piquant characterization, wonderful dialogue and brainy, skillful writing.…”
Globe and Mail

“Unputdownable.…A sojourn within The Gates of Ivory is not something one soon forgets.”
Edmonton Journal

“Irresistible, thought-provoking.…Compelling.”
–Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.74(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.22(d)

Related Subjects

Meet the Author

Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield, England, in 1939, and studied English at Cambridge University. Her novels include The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity, The Gates of Ivory, The Witch of Exmoor, The Peppered Moth, and, most recently, The Seven Sisters. Among her non-fiction works are Arnold Bennett: A Biography, A Writer's Britain, and Angus Wilson: A Biography. She is also the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

Margaret Drabble has three children and is married to the biographer Michael Holroyd. She lives in London, England.

Brief Biography

London, England
Date of Birth:
June 5, 1939
Place of Birth:
Sheffield, England
Cambridge University

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The Gates of Ivory 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Had it been that anxious, conscientious young Khmer, who had risked perhaps his life to send across the lines the package that had brought her to this room, these orchids?' Thus a narrator from the novel, whose task is shared with Harriet Osborne, summarizes the essential plot structure of this fantastic third novel in a trilogy. How can we not be pleased that Mr. Stephen Cox, writer, has sent his friend, Liz Headleand (nice to see you again, Liz!) a crazy surprise package full of postcards and messages. She feels obliged to interpret them. Her efforts at coming to grips with the text Stephen has sent her takes up much of the novel's plot. But, Stephen is Man with his Problem. He goes off on a quest to Thailand and Vietnam. Is he seeking inspiration for his next play? What is the meaning of life? The 'Gates of Ivory,' ironically, is Stephen's tale. Drabble is presenting man's fate. Ms. Drabble entertains us further with the other two friends, Alix Bowen and Esther Breuer. Esther gets married and Alix continues as a good social worker. The three women are as charming as ever. Thematically, Good Time and Bad Time coexist. Man has the capacity to do good and evil. Who represents good? Liz, Alix, and Esther who carry on their daily lives in a responsible, sane fashion day-to-day, unlike Stephen who traverses into too much unknown territory. The epitaph at the start of the novel presages the hope that will conclude the novel in the form of Liz's party. Konstantin Vassilou, Stephen's good friend from Vietnam, is alive and well and is invited. Konstantin also represents Good. Stephen is captured by the Bad Time forces--i.e. evil and darkness--and dies of malaria. Ms. Drabble engages us with the suspense and terror of Stephen's life in Thailand and Vietnam as well as with Liz's trip to the East to find out what happended to her friend. It is a symbolic effort to show her concern to resolve the mystery of Stephen's trouble. Kampuchea is Bad Time, men doing evil. The Vietnam war killed many innocent people. Paul Whitmore, Alix's murderer, is Bad Time. Alix is Good Time, for she is dedicated to her social work. She is a good friend of Liz and Esther. 'It is a comfortable, Good Time room,' Drabble says of Liz Headleand's drawing room in St. John Wood. Good must investigate. Liz, Konstantin, Alix, and Esther will endure in truth, light, and goodness is the message of hope that Ms. Drabble concludes this enthralling novel with--and we're all invited to the 'Good-Time Party.'