‘The Gifts Of War’ by Margaret Drabble

The Gifts Of War by Margaret Drabble, 1970

The magic trick:

Giving us two different views of the mother character – one from inside her thoughts and the other from an external, observational point of view

Some stories feel as if they could be set at any time. It’s hard for the reader to pinpoint. They feel timeless.

This is no such story.

“The Gifts Of War” very much puts the reader in late ’60s/early-’70s England, complete with Vietnam War protests at a local department store.

But that said, it still does a nice job of communicating timeless ideas too.

How?

Well, Drabble, ever the master of free indirect style, puts us in the headspace of two different women. The first half of the story gives us the point of view of a woman, preparing to go downtown to buy her son a birthday present. The second half finds us inside the thoughts of a young woman, hoping to impress a man by protesting at the aforementioned local department store.

Of course, the two women’s paths cross in the end. What’s especially interesting is that we don’t re-enter the mom’s thoughts when she reappears in the story, shopping for her son. We observe her crisis from a distance.

It’s a very neat thing to experience her story both through intimate internal monologue and the external third-person.

And that’s quite a trick on Drabble’s part.

The selection:

‘I’m going to get our Kevin his birthday present,’ she said, her voice cold and neutral, offering justice and no more.

‘What’ll I do about me dinner?’ he said.

‘I’ll be back,’ she said. ‘And if I’m not, you can get your own. It won’t kill you.’

He mumbled and coughed, and she left the room. When she got downstairs, she began, at last, to enter upon the day’s true enjoyment: slowly she took possession of it, this day that she had waited for, and which could not now be taken from her. She’d left herself a cup of tea on the table, but before she sat down to drink it she got her zip plastic purse from behind the clock on the dresser, and opened it, and got the money out. There it was, all of it: thirty shillings, three ten-bob notes, folded tightly up in a brown envelope: twenty-nine and eleven, she needed, and a penny over. Thirty shillings, saved, unspoken for, to spend. She’d wondered, from time to time, if she ought to use it to buy him something useful, but she knew now that she wasn’t going to: she was going to get him what he wanted—a grotesque, unjustifiable luxury, a pointless gift. It never occurred to her that the pleasure she took in doing things for Kevin was anything other than selfish: she felt vaguely guilty about it, she would have started furtively, like a miser, had anyone knocked on the door and interrupted her contemplation, she would bitterly have denied the intensity of her anticipation.

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