By Stephanie Johnson
As a young woman, Jess bears a child to her married anthropology professor. The baby is Anna, the pure gold baby of the title, who is born with an intellectual handicap. Jess goes on to have a number of other affairs and two short-lived marriages. Throughout the novel, reference is made to a formative visit Jess made to Africa when she was a student.
There she observed children with Lobster-Claw syndrome, a label which now, as the narrator observes, is incorrect. The condition is known as SHSF (Split Hand Split Foot).
Anthropologists are a strange breed, as the narrator remarks, although she takes on the role of anthropologist herself, recording the quotidian twists and turns of Jess' life and times - her lovers, her career as an anthropologist and her triumphs and failures as a mother of an intellectually handicapped child.
The concerns and fascinations of the 60s and 70s are woven through the narrative; the denizens of North London read Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, their children watch Blue Peter on TV and there are many nostalgic recordings of past expressions, usually pre-empted by the phrase "in those days", such as "colour bar", "single mother" and "savage" as being "almost acceptable". (Perhaps in Britain - it certainly wasn't in New Zealand.) There are wry observations of the time: "The BBC drank a lot in those days", and "new novels of the day were beginning to pay close if belated attention to the female orgasm".