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Lessing, Doris

world africa comfortable house

(British, 1919– )

Lessing was brought up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), is a brilliant depiction of the way racial segregation poisoned the lives of both black and white people. Her politics and beliefs fire her writing but never cause her to toe a line—whatever comfortable beliefs you hold, Lessing asks the questions that make you squirm. She writes about big ideas in a straightforward and accessible way. Begin with The Good Terrorist (1985), a book about self-deception: a naïve group of would-be terrorists squat in a derelict London house and are mothered by Alice, who makes the house comfortable for them by sponging off her own mother whilst reviling her for her pathetic bourgeois lifestyle. Move on to the semi-autobiographical Children of Violence sequence, starting with Martha Quest (1952). These five novels chart the heroine's progress from adolescence towards her own old age and the end of the world, taking in Africa, communism, marriage, and its breakdown, motherhood, 1960s’ London, feminism, mysticism, and an unceasing need to make sense of the world. The Golden Notebook (1962), which is made up of the story of Anna Wulf intercut with stories from her four notebooks, explores the fragmentation of human experience, and examines female identity. Mara and Dann (1999) is set in Africa in a future where much of the continent has been destroyed by drought, and traces the journey northwards of a brother and sister. There are rich echoes here of her earlier books; the fascination with exile and the open-mindedness and courage that come from being an outsider; the horror of stifling, claustrophobic, petty-minded communities. The linked novels The Fifth Child (1988) and Ben, in the World (2000) also explore the life of an outsider; a boy who is ‘a genetic throwback’, maybe even a goblin, so strange and difficult that he rips apart the cosy life of his family in the earlier (better) book, and roams the world in search of others like himself in the sequel.

Lessing also writes space fiction, and powerful evocative short stories. Her autobiography (first vol., Under My Skin, 1995) is highly recommended.

Nadine Gordimer, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Atwood. See AFRICA, SCIENCE FICTION  JR

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