In her first post-Nobel book, Lessing (The Cleft, 2007, etc.) imagines what her parents’ life—and England—would have been like if World War I had never happened.
That’s the premise of the shrewd novella that comprises the most interesting half of this slightly scattershot assemblage. In real life, Emily McVeagh and Alfred Tayler met as nurse and gravely wounded soldier in a London hospital, married and settled in Rhodesia, where Lessing and her brother were raised while the Taylers tried to carve a good living from a colonial outpost that wasn’t at all what they expected. (A bracing nonfiction section following the novella delves into that.) In “Alfred and Emily,” they come from the same small English town, but he stays there to become a prosperous farmer while she defies her father’s wishes to train as a nurse in London. She marries a prominent doctor (unhappily); he marries a warm, comforting woman beloved by his drunken best mate nearly as much as by Alfred. Without the traumatizing World War, England remains affluent and comfortable, but also class-divided and stagnant; Lessing’s taste for discomfiting truths is as evident as ever. The diverse pieces that follow have their ups and downs. The material about her parents will be familiar in its broad strokes to anyone who read Lessing’s autobiography (Under My Skin, 1994, and Walking in the Shade, 1997), but it forms a pointed and instructive counterbalance to the novella. A few shorter, more casual pieces (“Insects,” “Provisions,” Servant Problems,” etc.) don’t add much to what Lessing has written before about Africa, but “My Brother Harry Tayler” gives the author a chance to expatiate on her sibling, her own children and the end of white rule in Rhodesia with an acuity all the more impressive since it requires barely eight pages.
At age 89, the author may be slowing down a trifle, but the best parts here are as bracing and engaging as anything she’s written in the past 30 years.