A Natural Curiosity, the title of Margaret Drabble’s new novel, refers to our philosophical interest in human nature as well as our less innocent fascination with criminals, brutal murders, war atrocities, sexual perversions, psychopaths, and deviant behavior. It is a novel about the aggressive and ceaseless burrowing into the human psyche by psychoanalysts, journalists, and biographers; the media’s thirst for sensationalism, and the effect its distortions have on us; and the seemingly ever-growing abundance of violence and cruelty, and its strange magnetic pull. In a world like this, Drabble wonders, what is “natural,” and what is normal? The title is double-edged: ultimately there is no “natural” behavior in the book–everyone’s curiosity appears twisted and abnormal–and yet the sheer universality of unnatural acts and thoughts makes them natural, the status quo.

The book opens with one of the main characters, Alix Bowen, driving to visit “her murderer,” a young man imprisoned for killing and beheading four women and one man. Alix visits him monthly. Her connection to the murderer is a slim one–a student of hers was his last victim–but he has come to represent the hidden solution to her unanswered questions. “It is almost as if she had invented him, as an illustration of whatever it is she wishes to discover about human nature.” On the first page the tenor of every one of the novel’s relationships has been established–all are characterized by inexplicable attraction, by illogical desire, by mystery and revulsion.

Alix is only one of the characters in the book who find it hard to justify their strange behavior. There is also a journalist who travels to the Middle East, to a city notoriously hostile to journalists, to rescue a colleague of his whom he never really liked. And there is a housewife who finds her husband has killed himself in the garage and calmly makes a cup of tea, drives off without telling anyone, and embarks on an affair with a stranger in Paris.

Since these interlocked characters belong to a well-informed, educated, liberal, self-examining social set in the atmosphere of contemporary enlightened Britain, Drabble seems to be making a case for the theory that a wealth of information, rather than illuminating our lives, only further confuses and unbalances us. The wise, rational, and very successful psychotherapist Liz rattles off Freudian terminology, but remains blind to her own family secret until it is finally laid out in front of her. Couples who think their domestic relationships are secure and comfortable discover how easily they can be overturned. All these people struggle with what seem like self-evident truths in their lives, and find them to be as tenuous as the facts and figures of the country itself: “Are we bankrupt or are we prosperous? Have we squandered our resources and drained the North Sea gold, or is the economy booming and the balance of payments healthier than it has been for decades? . . . Are there nearly four million unemployed with unemployment rising daily, especially in the north, or are the unemployment figures sinking daily, especially in the north? . . . Each day brings new figures, new analyses, new comment, new interpretations, newly false oppositions of factors that cannot be compared: for the nation has fallen in love with statistics, although it cannot decide what they mean.”

The characters of A Natural Curiosity are very much products of their times, and we instantly recognize the issues that occupy them–child abuse, AIDS, housing-development scandals. A few of the plot’s details are fundamentally British, but most–including a Cub Scout troop leader suspected of pederasty and a hostage whose death was perhaps staged on videotape by Middle East terrorists–are general. The world Drabble depicts is overwhelmed by problems that traumatize its inhabitants, who are barraged daily by media coverage of violent crimes and sordid domestic dramas. And yet, she writes, “People want to believe in an ordered, regular world, of faithful married couples, legitimate children, normal sex, legal behaviour, decent continuity, and they will go to almost any lengths to preserve this faith.” This desire sets up a tension in the novel. Its characters present themselves as normal; at the same time they are swept up in their own doubts, their neuroses, their insatiable curiosities. Like the heroes of Greek tragedy, they are driven to inquire, even at the risk of uncovering secrets that could change their lives drastically.

Drabble writes in her author’s note that this is a sequel to The Radiant Way, which introduced us to the three main women characters. “I had not intended to write a sequel,” she explains, “but felt that the earlier novel was in some way unfinished, that it had asked questions it had not answered, and introduced people who had hardly been allowed to speak.” One gets the sense, reading this statement, that Drabble herself has not escaped the “natural curiosity” that provides a recurring motif throughout the novel and in fact binds it together. She has succumbed to her own curiosity about her inventions, as if they took off independently in directions she couldn’t control, like those early cartoon characters that get up and walk off the drawing board. Occasionally Drabble stands back and appeals to the reader, as when she reacts against the widowed housewife’s impulsive spree: “It astonished me, it astonished her, and maybe it astonished you. What do you think will happen to her? Do you think our end is known in our beginning, that we are predetermined, that we endlessly repeat?” But in these whimsical moments Drabble only pretends her characters are autonomous, for she maintains a clear command over their destinies and actions.

Drabble begins the novel with apparently unconnected stories, first describing an event in Alix’s life, then shifting to the living room of the Enderbys, then on to Liz, then to Liz’s ex-husband Charles. As she shifts focus, connecting these apparently random, isolated dots, she gradually forms her narrative. That narrative becomes increasingly compelling as Drabble carefully parcels out the clues and builds the suspense–our natural curiosity becomes bound up with that of the characters. In the act of reading, Drabble seems to say, we exercise as much morbid interest and hunger for intrigue as Alix, who has a job compiling the love letters of a minor poet for some future biography; or archaeologist Ian Kettle, who’s digging up gory remains from Britain’s ancient history; or the peripheral gossip columnist, who pries into the personal secrets of his friends.

At one point Drabble jokes that this is “not a political novel. More a pathological novel. A psychotic novel.” It is also a social novel. “England’s not a bad country. It’s just a mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out post-imperial post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons.” The women are strong, smart, and articulate. They “chatter on, moving from Moreau to Freud and the Oedipus complex and Vienna and whether or not Hoffman is right to argue that Freud was wrong to revise his presentation of hysteria.” They are forever reading Tacitus and Lucan and are persistent in their curiosity. Alix delves into the murderer’s past until she almost seems to be living vicariously through him. Liz, in pondering the predicaments of her friends, “tries to think of the whole human race, on its quest for its own self and its own destruction.”

Ultimately, none of this weighty thinking does anyone any good. These are privileged, intelligent people (even minor characters are given to sudden recitations of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Goethe), but for all their efforts they can’t clarify their own lives, much less the messy, crude world they live in. They do not, however, emerge unscathed or without having learned their lessons. No kind of curiosity, Drabble tells us, is purely innocent. Nevertheless, what we often consider mere perverse interest can possibly provide insights.

Only the last few pages ring somehow false. In the final scene, Liz, Alix, and their friend Esther are sharing a perfect lunch in Italy, during which all the loose ends are tied up neatly, so neatly that one gets a feeling not of conclusion but of perfunctory summation. The whole novel is about asking questions, and here, in two pages, are the answers. The three women have stumbled and struggled through 300 pages, then they sit and drink coffee and Strega, and suddenly all three of them are at peace with the world.

A Natural Curiosity by Margaret Drabble, Viking, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Nicole Ferentz.