The Gates of Ivory by Margaret Drabble
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The varied voices in The Gates of Ivory aren't all that different in tone, probably because they're filtered through some unknown storyteller - not quite the omniscient author, definitely someone known to all the parties who is listening to them tell the tale of Stephen Cox' disappearance in Cambodia and its affect on friends and colleagues. There are the women, Liz, Hattie, Esther and Alix, who are involved with him to varying degrees and whose relationships with each other aren't always friendly. There are the men, Charles and Konstantin mostly, who are almost ancillary to the women (although Konstantin does play a very important part in all this). And there's Stephen, whose story is told via his journal/diary and notebooks and flashbacks. Luckily, whose story this is is made clear when each switch is made.
The difference between upper-middle-class London and Cambodia/Thailand/Vietnam in the 1980s is explored lightly; at times, it reads a little like "oh, look at those colonials. they'll never get it right" while at others we're in the aftermath of killing fields. Moving from that back to the comfortable world of London isn't as jarring as one might think, at least not in this book. The bigger question for me was whether or not I cared about any of these characters or experiences. And the answer was, no, not really. I was interested enough to continue reading, not enough to race through the book (hence the 3 star rating).
Like her sister A.S. Byatt, Drabble writes gorgeous sentences and paragraphs: her words feel good to read. And that's probably why I continued to read a book I wasn't really hooked on!