Four novellas demonstrating that 84-year-old author (The Sweetest Dream, 2002, etc.) still boasts a range and power few writers half her age can muster.
Lessing opens with “The Grandmothers,” a portrait of taboo-defying sex and a friendship beyond ordinary bounds. Roz and Lil form in girlhood a bond so close that it eventually drives away Roz’s husband. The women’s two young boys are best friends too, but after Lil’s spouse dies in a car crash, her sensitive, “nervy” son Ian seems to pine—until, at age 17, he climbs into Roz’s bed. Her son Tom spends the very next night with Lil, and for more than a decade the foursome maintain a secret idyll, its meaning and consequences addressed with penetrating psychological complexity. In “Victoria and the Staveneys,” a short masterpiece of sharp social realism, a young black girl’s chance connection in London with a family of wealthy white liberals changes her life. Victoria’s personal struggles (poignant, but never sentimentalized) stingingly contrast with the Staveneys’ comfortable journey through two decades in late-20th-century Britain. “The Reason for It,” an allegory of civilization’s decline in the mode of Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series, will not appeal to everyone, but it’s meticulously crafted with her customary serious intelligence. “A Love Child” practically flaunts the author’s ability to vividly enter into and convey almost any experience: an English soldier’s nightmarish ocean journey on a WWII troop ship, a Cape Town wife’s vague feelings of privileged discontent, their almost hallucinatory four-day romance, and the soldier’s subsequent, desperately dull administrative service in India, which leaves plenty of time for his obsessive memories of the affair that will shape his postwar life as well. Class distinctions, political unrest, emotional torment: Lessing nails them all in blunt prose that disdains elegance for the sterner pleasures of truthful observation.
When you’re dealing with an author whose track record spans a half-century and paradigm-altering works like The Golden Notebook, it’s too easy to simply praise another excellent effort. Where is this woman’s Nobel Prize?