The Gates of Ivory

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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 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...
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The Gates of Ivory

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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 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.

From the acclaimed author of The Radiant Way, comes "a wonderful piece of sustained invention" (San Francisco Chronicle). When a psychiatrist receives a package containing what appears to be human bones, she believes it's a message from an old friend in trouble.

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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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140167191
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/15/1993
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Drabble

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.


With her shrewd, mannered descriptions and dialogue, Drabble can say a lot. Take this line from The Witch of Exmoor: "He bites his nails between grapes, and avoids eye contact. A mother -- but perhaps not his -- would note that he is too thin." The British author, who has been writing surprising and clever novels for some 40 years, tends to remain focused on female protagonists; but she is inventive when it comes to narration, sometimes where you least expect it. The Witch of Exmoor, for example, has a wry, omniscient narrator who begins with a godlike, "Begin on a midsummer evening. Let them have everything that is pleasant." In 2002's The Seven Sisters, the first section of the book is the main character's (often self-critical) computer diary, and unexpected shifts in perspective follow.

Her variations in narrative structure and her injection of political and social commentary into her works makes Drabble a particularly challenging and interesting writer. Her return to fiction after a seven-year gap, 1987's The Radiant Way, became a trilogy (completed by A Natural Curiosity and Gates of Ivory) that veered slightly into international adventure territory. Ivory, for example, flips between psychiatrist Liz Headleand (one of the three women first featured in The Radiant Way) and the writer friend for whom she is searching, a man who has gone to Cambodia for research. Unfortunately, several of Drabble's early and highly praised novels (including the first two books of the aforementioned trilogy) are out of print in the U.S. It's a shame, because those books are the ones that established Drabble as an important writer, and are the templates for Drabble's independent, intelligent heroines on the road to self-discovery.

A few critics who have been admirers of Drabble's since she began writing in the 1960s have gone sour on the author in her later years. On the release of The Witches of Exmoor, a Toronto Sun critic wrote, "I am so sad and sorry to report that Margaret Drabble, once one of the best novelists on earth, is past her best," calling the novel a "rehash." Of 2002's The Seven Sisters, the story of middle-aged divorcee Candida Wilton's experiences as a newly single woman, a critic for Britain's Observer lamented the book's unconventional and somewhat cagey approach toward the end. "Altogether, Candida is alive enough that the novel's truncations ache like phantom limbs," the critic wrote. "The realised heroines of Drabble's magnificent books from the 1960s or 1970s would say to Candida, Tell me what it is like to be you."

Ultimately, part of the push and shove over Drabble's work comes down to a tension between literary invention and reader satisfaction; she has often been criticized for not caring enough about her characters to make them engaging. The New York Times wrote of The Gates of Ivory, "It's about politics and literature, terrorism and atrocities, love and life and death.... But ideas do not make a novel. Characters do. And we need to care about them, deeply." However, consider The Nation's take: "What I love about this novel is what I love about the best of Drabble's works -- it's rich and complex and allusive and textured and intertextual and takes on the big questions: life and art, representation and responsibility, the possibility of political action, the question of human nature. It's a novel of ideas at a time when most fiction seems deliberately lobotomized."

Good To Know

Possession author A. S. Byatt is Drabble's older sister. There was too much competition," Byatt says about her childhood relationship with her sister. "We didn't get on."

Drabble was an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company after she graduated from college, and was an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave; she married fellow RSC actor Clive Swift in 1960. The two divorced in 1975, and Drabble later married biographer Michael Holroyd.

Also a scholarly writer of biography and nonfiction, Drabble has written several forewords to editions of Jane Austen's work as well as lives of novelists Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson. The nonfiction includes a 1990 analysis and critique of property law, Safe as Houses.

Drabble has also written several plays including Laura, Isadora, and Bird of Paradise. She adapted her novel The Millstone as the 1969 film A Touch of Love.

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 5, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sheffield, England
    1. Education:
      Cambridge University

Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2003

    It Was A Good Time: Another Outing With Liz, Alix, and Esther

    '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.'

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