Central Library Reader’s Group review Doris Lessing

lessing sweetest dreamThe Sweetest Dream: While Frances Lennox, uncomplaining and unsentimental about her roles as 60s earth mother for a string of “screwed up” post-war children, serves up endless nurturing at the crowded kitchen table of a large North London house, her erstwhile ex-husband pursues revolution on all-expenses-paid trips and conferences. Occasionally he drops by for free meals or to dump one of the children–or wives–of another failed marriage on Frances’ doorstep. Lessing is able to turn a dispassionate eye on the economics of free love, in which women usually pay. From swinging 60s London to liberated sub-Saharan Africa, the author depicts the human faces of a broad canvas of issues in this polemical piece. The novel ranges from anorexia to AIDS, to casting a questioning eye at the morality of the travellers on the World Bankgravy train. Moving from London to the tragic landscape of post-independence “Zimlia”–a thinly veiled Zimbabwe–Lessing documents the social movement and lost dreams of a post-war generation, for whom “it is always The Dream that counts”.

What our reader said: “Recommended especially the second half concerning an ultimately failed but nevertheless inspiring attempt to help poor children in an African state (probably Rhodesia/Zimbabwe)”

The Four-gated City (Children of Violence) :  ‘The Four-Gated City’ finds Martha Quest in 1950s London and very much part of the social history of the time: the Cold War, the anti-nuclear Aldermaston Marches, Swinging London, the deepening of poverty and social anarchy. Daring to go a step further – as Lessing so often has in her career – the novel ends with the century in the throes of World War Three. In the four previous novels of the ‘Children of Violence’ series, Lessing explored the end of an epoch. Here she trains her gaze on the present – and the future. The disquieting power of her vision revealed across this series finds its culmination in this brave and visionary work.

What our reader said: “Well written, vividly described inner life of characters”

a proper marriageA Proper Marriage (Children of Violence): ‘A Proper Marriage’ sees twenty-something Martha beginning to realise that her marriage has been a terrible mistake. Already the first passionate flush of matrimony has begun to fade; sensuality has become dulled by habit, blissful motherhood now seems no more than a tiresome chore. Caught up in a maelstrom of a world war she can no longer ignore, Martha’s political consciousness begins to dawn, and, seizing independence for the first time, she chooses to make her life her own.

  What our reader said: “Thoughtful and intelligent”

The Grass is Singing : Set in Rhodesia, ‘The Grass is Singing’ tells the story of Dick Turner, a failed white farmer and his wife, Mary, a town girl who hates the bush and viciously abuses the black South Africans who work on their farm. But after many years, trapped by poverty, sapped by the heat of their tiny house, the lonely and frightened Mary turns to Moses, the black cook, for kindness and understanding.  A masterpiece of realism, ‘The Grass is Singing’ is a superb evocation of Africa’s majestic beauty, an intense psychological portrait of lives in confusion and, most of all, a fearless exploration of the ideology of white supremacy.

What our reader said: “Her first novel – savage indictment of white Rhodesian farmer and their inborn racism, tragic and bitterly ironic (only farmer who preserves the environment is a hopeless failure – others who ruthlessly exploit the land make a lot of money)”

the grandmothersThe Grandmothers : Four novellas that once again show Doris Lessing to be unequalled in her ability to capture the truth of the human condition. The title story, ‘The Grandmothers’, is an astonishing tour de force, a shockingly intimate portrait of an unconventional extended family and the lengths to which they will go to find happiness and love. Written with a keen cinematic eye, the story is a ruthless dissection of the veneer of middle-class morality and convention. ‘Victoria and the Staveneys’, takes us through 20 years of the life of a young underprivileged black girl in London. A chance meeting introduces her to the Staveneys – a liberal white middle-class family – and, seduced, she falls pregnant by one of the sons. As her daughter grows up, Victoria feels her parental control diminishing as the attractions of the Staveneys’ world exert themselves. An honest and often uncomfortable look at race relations in London over the past few decades, Lessing reaffirms her brilliance at demonstrating the effect of society on the individual.

What our reader said: “ 4 novellas – uneven – first two inspiring , third one ill conceived, last one I wasn’t in the mood for.”

The CleftThe Cleft :  Doris Lessing invites us to imagine a mythical society free from sexual intrigue, free from jealousy, free from petty rivalries: a society free from men. An old Roman senator embarks on what may be his last endeavour: the retelling of the story of human creation. He recounts the history of the Clefts, an ancient community of women living in an Edenic, coastal wilderness, in the valley of an overshadowing mountain. The Clefts have no need, or knowledge, of men – childbirth is controlled through the cycles of the moon, and their children are always female. But with the birth of a strange, new child – a boy – the harmony of their community is thrown into jeopardy.
At first, the Clefts are awestruck by this seemingly malformed child, but as more and more of these threateningly unfamiliar males appear, they are rejected, and are exposed on the nearby mountainside, sacrificed to the patrolling eagles overhead. Unbeknownst to the Clefts, however, these baby males survive, aided by the eagles, and thrive on the other side of the mountain. It is not until a curious young Cleft named Maire goes beyond the geographical, and emotional, divide of the mountain that this disquieting fact is uncovered – forcing the Clefts to accept the prospect of a now shared world, and the possible vengeance of the wronged males.

What our reader said: “Devastating myth making about the struggle between man and woman, which started right at the very beginning of our history (from the point of view of disillusioned elderly Roman senator!) – written when Lessing in her mid eighties!”

marriages between zonesMarriages Between Zones 3, 4 and 5 : This is the second volume in Doris Lessing’s celebrated space fiction series, ‘Canopus in Argos: Archives’. In this interlinked quintet of novels, she creates a new extraordinary cosmos where the fate of the Earth is influenced by the rivalries and interactions of three powerful galactic empires, Canopus, Sirius and their enemy, Puttiora. Blending myth, fable and allegory, Doris Lessing’s astonishing visionary creation both reflects and redefines the history of our own world from its earliest beginnings to an inevitable, tragic self-destruction.

What our readers said: “Sci-Fi but essentially the same theme as the previous novel, the struggle between the sexes – quirky and highly original”

Overall verdict: Extraordinarily versatile author! (Comments by Pat, Hugh, Malcolm, Janis, Nicki, Robin and Jennifer.)