Review

The Grandmothers

by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing is eight-four years old and for more than fifty years has distinguished herself as one of the most intelligent, provocative, influential and courageous writers in English. Her body of work includes novels, novellas, short stories, essays, political treatises, plays, operas, poetry, memoirs and an autobiography. The breadth of her work stretches from life on the veld in South Africa to life on other planets. Her themes center on the relationships between women and men; the painful side of interactions between children and parents; how individuals perceive themselves in society and how they believe society perceives them; how personalities are shaped or shape themselves as a result of the circumstances and experiences of the individual lives they represent; and the way political actions affect the populace and the role the individual needs to employ as a result of the political system under which they live. She believes that most psyches employ extraordinary feats of emotional, social and cultural compartmentalization in order for life to move on.

Lessing has been lauded as a staunch supporter and defender of feminism (she denies categorically this interpretation of her work). She writes about communism; her commitment to it and her later rejection of the entire movement. With no fear of exploration and an insatiable thirst for knowledge, she adopted the Sufi way of life. This "conversion" came after she reviewed a book about it, which inspired her to read everything about this mystical yet pragmatic belief system. To find a coherent path that rejects propaganda, prejudice and ideology was a gift for Lessing. The tenets of the Sufi way of life reinforced her already cemented ways of thinking. Her novels are considered especially important because of their daring and wide range: she moves from realist narrative to science fiction and fantasy without losing her focus. She is fearless and is considered one of the most forward thinking and groundbreaking writers of the twentieth (now twenty-first) century.

Her latest book, THE GRANDMOTHERS, is comprised of four very different novellas. Each one is a prototype of how Lessing perceives the possibilities available to the individual and human dramas that fill every life. These four tales emerge as a prism through which readers can catch a glimpse of the myriad issues Lessing has nurtured from her early fiction, THE GRASS IS SINGING and her feminist opus THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK, to her visionary and cautionary books like BRIEFING FOR A DESCENT INTO HELL and MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR.

The first story in THE GRANDMOTHERS uses the book's title for its own and begins, " …six people were making the gentle ascent, four adults and two little girls, whose shrieks of pleasure" were prompted by reaching Baxter's, a local café where they would be rewarded with goodies for good behavior. "Two handsome men came first … then two … handsome women of about sixty --- but no one would dream of calling them elderly." The little group settled in comfortably, the waitress knew them and brought them their regular treats. "They all sighed, heard each other and now laughed, a full frank laugh that seemed to acknowledge things unsaid." The mood quietly relaxed and intermingled with some secret the adults share and enjoy with looks and smiles.

The Grandmothers of the scene at the hillside rest came about because two little girls who met in primary school instantly became best friends. They have always been as close as sisters and live their lives as though this were true. When they finish school, Lil becomes a competitive international swimming star while Roz turns to drama and the theater. They enjoy a double wedding, move into houses on the same street and give birth to their sons at the same time. The women have very different personalities but are more devoted to each other than anyone else. Roz's husband shouts at her, "It's you, and Lil. Always. And what difference would it make if you were [lesbians?] Obviously sex doesn't matter that much. We have … more than adequate sex but it's not me you have a relationship with." Roz is slightly bewildered but feels no great loss when her husband leaves.

On the other hand Lil is always worried that people will think they are "lezzies." But they are so far from being homosexuals that by an unspoken agreement and cunning desire they each bed the other's son. These liaisons go on for years with much joy had by all. The whole concept raises issues of possible incest, the role of mothers in the lives of their male offspring, how to define the boundaries of different kinds of love and the impact of an arrangement like this on the development of these boys as they mature into men. Lessing presents this story without judgment on the women or the sons and clearly wants the reader to ponder the decisions these people have made and what it has cost them … if anything.

"Victoria and the Staveneys," the second piece, works on a different plane. Here, a young black girl from "the projects" or council housing has a terrible childhood filled with loss, abandonment, illness and death. She loses her mother, is reluctantly taken in by her aunt, who develops cancer, and while she is dying insists that young Victoria take care of her. When the aunt passes away a close friend, Phyllis, who is a social worker, moves Victoria into her tiny apartment with her three children and an old, ailing grandfather.

The years pass. Victoria grows up with the knowledge that she is somehow different; she has always felt herself an outsider but makes strides to overcome her deprecating concept of herself. She develops into a stunner, which is a constant worry to her guardian, who knows too well how easily a good-looking girl can ruin her life with one act of recklessness. And, of course, Victoria does. After a series of jobs that didn't always pay well, she meets and has an affair with a middle-class white boy, becomes pregnant, doesn't inform the father, has the baby (a "mocha" little girl) and keeps her. A few years later she marries a musician who, despite always being on the road, manages to impregnate her and she gives birth to a black little boy, Dickson, who is unmanageable and "sweats too much." Soon after he is born, his father is killed. More years pass, and one day Victoria decides to tell Thomas he is Mary's father. This decision holds many terrifying possibilities for the future relationships Mary will form.

His entire family takes the news in stride. They are all liberal-minded, educated and, though sometimes feckless people, truly fall in love with the little girl. As a result of their affection, status, connections and money, they can offer her a life filled with the opportunities her mother never even dreamed of. Victoria must make the most painful decision of her life. Her daughter's entire future depends on it.

The third narrative is "light science-fiction" about a place that had once been conquered by another nation. However, in this piece, that was good because the old culture was infused with learning, storytelling and beauty, all seeped in a high sense of morality, loyalty and peace. Like all oligarchies, not every leader was benign, but the most influential was Destra who, as a child, was chosen out of twelve (The Twelve) to be taught how to care for their world and everyone in it. Under her watch this place was a glorious paradise, an Edenesque landscape. But when she dies, her son is elected by the other eleven to take her place. From that moment on, their world becomes barbaric --- warring, poorly managed and grotesque. The narrator, the last of The Twelve, tells his story in slow and with deeply felt emotion, as a storyteller should. This gives readers a chance to conjure up the images he brings forth.

This is one of Lessing's cautionary tales. In it, she harkens back to her communist days for a taste of laissez faire living with each contributing to the best of her/his ability. In other words, she flips to black --- the dark side of humanity, of how worlds erode, grow dim, lose hope and regress back to primitive levels of survival. This theme is tightly woven into the fabric of Lessing's oeuvre, as seen in some of her early works, BRIEFING FOR A DESCENT INTO HELL and MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR. All of these novels speak to the downfall of societies, where corruption and wrong- minded people are able to take power for their own agendas. Lessing believes that when a society loses respect and interest in its culture, art, music, language, books, freedom to think and debate and discuss, that community will not survive. When nature is desecrated and people squander the riches of the world, only barbarism, ignorance and flat-mindedness will result.

The fourth and final addition to this collection is "A Love Child," an enigmatic, World War II love story that takes place in South Africa and then in India. James Reid is an Englishman who, with his mates, boards "… that great ship in its camouflage dress, designed to make it look … like a blur or a cloud or perhaps a school of flying fishes, at any rate something ephemeral, now seemed solid, sinister, even furtive. Five thousand soldiers with their attendant officers crammed the dockside" waiting their turn to board the vessel that was designed to accommodate seven hundred eighty passengers and crew. Lessing describes the voyage in painful detail, as nothing worse than a passage through Hell. The men suffer enormously from seasickness, blazing heat, lack of space and fear. When the ship finally reaches port in Cape Town and the soldiers began to descend the gangplank, it was obvious they had had a bad time. They were more like invalids than soldiers, holding on to handrails and not looking healthy.

A lonely married woman named Daphne is a volunteer "hostess" who agrees to shuttle the men from the port to various places where they can recoup their energies. By chance, James stumbles into her car and over a four-day period he convinces himself that she is the love of his life and they have an affair. She becomes pregnant and to him this is a lifelong commitment. Then he is sent on a mission and fully expects her to be divorced and ready to marry him if/when he returns from the battle. She, on the other hand, is conventional and provincial, despite her indiscretion, and has no desire to speak to him or ever see him again. This romantic man and the pragmatic woman represent a major feature in Lessing's work, i.e., the miscommunication between intimates that leads to heartbreak, disillusionment, even madness. The way she details their psychological and physical problems makes for fascinating reading --- she points to another way to view human behavior and its consequences, regardless of the chilling effect it may leave.

In her early memoir, "A Small Personal Voice," she talks about the plethora of letters she receives from young women wanting answers to the "big" questions of life. While somewhat flattered, she is more frustrated with these readers. She wants them to explore the issues she raises and analyze the ideas she proposes. THE GRANDMOTHERS is a perfect vehicle with which to approach Lessing's work if you have not read her before. Fans can rest assured that these novellas are pure Lessing, radiating with everything that brought you to her work in the first place. She has always had the chutzpah to say what she believes, even when she is not willing to explain why. And at the end of "A Love Child" much is left to the reader to decipher. This collection is a keeper!

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011

The Grandmothers
by Doris Lessing

  • Publication Date: January 4, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060530111
  • ISBN-13: 9780060530112