LOG IN TO MY ACCOUNT

A LIFE'S WORK

DORIS LESSING

  

We take a look back at some of the works of nonagenarian Doris Lessing who, despite her extensive list of titles, never fails to produce original and thought-provoking books of the highest quality. Her immense contribution to literature was recognised in 2007 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

doris lessing

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Doris Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, to British parents. In 1925 the family moved to South Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Doris attended firstly convent school, followed by an all-girls school. She dropped out at the age of 13 and though that was the extent of her formal education she turned herself into a self-educated intellectual.

Her first novel The Grass Is Singing was published in 1950, and she has since published more than 50 books. After refusing the offer of becoming a Dame of the British Empire, she was named a Companion of Honour and a Companion of Literature in Great Britain. She has been awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize, Spain's Prince of Asturias Prize, the International Catalonia Prize, and the ST Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature. In 2007, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She currently lives in North London and her most recent novel is Alfred and Emily which she has announced is her final book.

 

Back to top

Alfred and Emily

by Doris Lessing (HarperPerennial)

978-0007240173 | £8.99 pbk | 288pp


alfredIn this 2008 memoir Doris Lessing has split the narrative into two novellas. The first half of the story opens in 1902, and is a fictional reimagining of the lives of her mother and father, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh. This story assumes these two people did not marry each other and thus pursued a totally imagined life, and one in which the 1914–18 war did not take place. The second half of the narrative gives the reader the truthful account, and describes the life that Doris and her family actually experienced. Her parents were damaged both emotionally and physically by the consequences of the First World War, and this heightened experience had a profound effect on their subsequent lives.

Doris Lessing writes with sincerity and an understanding of social commentary, which easily engages the reader from the opening line. On a personal level I found both novellas fascinating to read, the dominant observation on the theme of family was reflective without being wearisome, and whilst the fictional first part could have been distracting, it didn’t make the ‘real’ memoir any less powerful.

 

Josie Barton, Wigan


Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

Back to top

Mara and Dann

by Doris Lessing

978-0006550839 | £7.99 pbk | 416pp

 

mara and dann

Some time in the future, perhaps 50 years or a thousand years away, two very young children set off on a journey north across Ifrik (Africa), one of two continents in the world not totally icebound. The journey will take them years, and they face all the trials of growing up along the way, as well as the problems of drought, getting food, separation, illness, drug addiction, war, love and sex and others.

Mara is just seven at the start of the novel, but already she is taking on a caring and protecting role for her four-year-old brother. She grows into a courageous and intelligent teenager and young woman. Dann is more ambiguous – sometimes he is not very likeable, and can Mara rescue him from some of the situations he gets into? By the time she wrote this, Lessing had moved away from feminism but I was very interested in her portrayal of women's role in society and all the related issues through Mara.

Along the way they encounter lots of societies at various stages of development, some seem better than others, but there is always a threat of conflict and war.

Mara and Dann is fascinating and thought-provoking, with very memorable protagonists. There is lots of material for discussion here, about the environmental and other issues explored, about the characters, the problems and dilemmas they face, and about their quest for somewhere to settle.

 

Luci Davin
 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

  

Back to top

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

by Doris Lessing (Flamingo)

978-0006548089 | £7.99 pbk | 320pp


briefing for a descent into hell

Briefing for a Descent into Hell charts the mental breakdown of Charles Walker. After being hospitalised, he is trapped in a delusional state while his two doctors discuss opposing treatment plans which they hope will aid his recovery.

I must admit that I found this book difficult. Doris Lessing's structure is experimental, the narrative switching between the contents of hospital notes, letters and conversations that are almost scripted. A large part of the novel takes the form of Charles's thoughts: long, rambling passages which continue for many pages with little pause for paragraph breaks. But Charles's imaginary world is evocative and well imagined.

There would be plenty for a book group to discuss, but the book requires a lot of concentration. 

 

SL Kay

 

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

Back to top

The Fifth Child
by Doris Lessing (Flamingo)

978-0586089033 | £7.99 pbk | 160pp

the fifth child

Doris Lessing is no stranger to tackling taboo subjects: what if you could not bond with one of your children, or in fact did not love them, actually thought they were killing you or they did not even want to be born?

Harriet and David Lovatt have always wanted a big family and this novel is set in the ‘boom and bust‘ ’80s. They want and appear to have the idyllic life: four ’perfect‘ children, a ‘perfect’ life, detached house, family and friends who visit and party; however all this is about to change as their cosy world starts to disintegrate when a fifth child appears and the family is torn apart. This almost too perfect existence inevitably starts to fall apart at the seams and collapse.

First published in 1988, the subject matter of consumerism, having it all, the throw-away society is even more relevant today, actually reading more like a thriller and domestic horror story combined. Although this short novel is certainly not an easy read it does give food for thought along the way.

Plenty for a reading group to ponder over, although some readers may find the subject matter too emotive and disturbing: you have been warned...

 

Richard L Vernon, Warwickshire


Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

Back to top

The Cleft

by Doris Lessing (HarperPerennial)

978-0007233441 | £7.99 pbk | 288pp


the cleft

This is the first work I have read by this Nobel Prize-winning author and I must say I was very apprehensive and unsure what I would make of it. I actually found it rather interesting.

We have a Roman telling a mythical version of the origins of humans, where there were only females, named Clefts, who birthed only females, until one day a male is born, referred to as a Squirt, and later a Monster. This fable or myth-like tale will, I think, leave some loving it and absorbed while others will not get on with it at all; it takes some imagination and is a break from the run-of-the-mill story. Whilst not a favourite, it is certainly something very different and I am quite glad in the end to have come across it. It definitely got me thinking! A reading group could go wild in discussion of it because it is about the fundamentals of life and the male and female sexes, and presents a very alternative view.

 

Lindsay Healy

 

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

Back to top

The Golden Notebook
by Doris Lessing (HarperPerennial)

978-0007247202 | £8.99 pbk | 576pp


the golden notebook

Well, this wasn't an easy read but if I have ever read a book that overwhelms me with the number of ideas woven into a plot, this is it. Essentially, this book in itself is a ‘Life’s Work’ by virtue of the vast amount Lessing has included in it. It's as if she has brainstormed every insightful idea she could possibly have and created a narrative around it. I expected a book purely based on feminism, but was pleasantly surprised to find the inclusion of African issues through Anna Wulf's own novel. She conveys the same oppressive atmosphere and chaos as seen in The Grass is Singing. I suspect The Golden Notebook shares content with many of Lessing's other novels too. My favourite sections were the yellow notebook (emotional life) and blue notebook (everyday events), as I like it when an author can transform everyday trivialities into absorbing fiction. 

 

Kelly Selby Jones


Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

Back to top

The Good Terrorist
by Doris Lessing (HarperPerennial)

978-0007247219 | 7.99 pbk | 400pp


the good terrorist

Alice and Jasper move into a London squat with like-minded revolutionaries, who form a branch of the Communist Central Union (CCU). Having left her family and her university education, Alice rebels against the world around her. However she does like to look after and care for Jasper and prefers to live in warm surroundings with running water and other amenities. She takes it upon herself to bring the squat into some sort of order by manipulation and stealing from the authorities and her parents. As others move into the squat next door to them they join forces with developments moving fast to destruction and chaos.

This was not a novel that I would normally reach for but I soon became absorbed in the characters (although there is little plot). I liked Alice and at times felt both sad for her and angry with her for the way she allowed Jasper to treat her. The way the characters have been written was brilliant and the way that they all rebelled against the system but in some way wanted to be taken care off (by Alice and her soups!). I did enjoy this read and will read some more of Ms Lessing’s novels in the future. I think that there is plenty for reading groups to discuss, with the many characters, their beliefs and the way of life for those who live in a squat.

 

Wendy Hunt, North Somercotes

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

Back to top

The Temptation of Jack Orkney
by Doris Lessing (Flamingo)

978-0006548072 | £7.99 pbk | 318pp

the temptation of jack orkney

This short-story collection by Lessing is quite hard to categorise as the stories deal with a huge array of subjects and social settings. The complicated relationships between men and women and the themes of loneliness and outsiders are covered, but for me personally, the stories that had a science fiction spin on them held most of my interest. Not many of the stories are happy (although there is some humour to be found), instead they could be described as sad, inevitable and sometimes tragic. This is a large collection of 35 stories and most of them are not only compelling but they often caused me to stop and think about them.

 

Jessica Willis


Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

Back to top

The Grandmothers
by Doris Lessing (HarperPerennial)

978-0007152810 | £7.99 pbk | 320pp


the grandmothers

In this collection of four novellas, Lessing re-engages with themes that have been preoccupations during her career: transgressive love, ways in which families damage each other and futuristic fiction.

The title story is the best: the tale of an apparently idyllic family with a destructive, badly kept secret. The writing is so skilful that no one character can really be blamed, and the reader is left to imagine whether they can survive. Victoria and the Staveneys deals with issues of social class, race and gender: Victoria’s clear vision of what her future holds stays with us. A Love Child evokes the horrors and the boredom of war and sets against it a story of obsessive love. Least successful, in my view, is Lessing’s futuristic vision in The Reason for It. Neither the plot nor the writing strategy has the special stamp that marks the other stories.

I found all four of these novellas absorbing. There is plenty for groups to discuss, in terms of both themes and style.

 

Gill Farnen

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

Back to top

The Sun between their Feet

by Doris Lessing (Flamingo)

978-0006545439 | £8.99 pbk | 384pp


the sun between their feetAlthough familiar with Doris Lessing’s novels, I have never read any of her short stories before. The ones in this volume, which is Volume 2 of her collected African stories, I found very readable and illuminating about a world she knew intimately. Lessing lived in Africa for twenty-five years and understands the complexities of African life and society. In these stories she explores racial, cultural, political and social issues from both white and black perspectives and brings to bear her considerable literary talent to portray that world.

To a certain extent I admired these stories rather than enjoyed them. Lessing’s skill as a writer is always in evidence and the stories are never less than thought-provoking and instructive. But I’m not a great reader of short stories anyway and find when I do read them they need to be instantly gripping and involving to hold my attention – and on the whole these stories didn’t always work for me. However, Lessing’s work is so wide-ranging and diverse, and her African background is such an essential part of her that you need to read at least some of her African stories to get a full picture of her as a writer, so these two volumes are essential reading.

 

Mandy Jenkinson, Cheltenham

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

  

Back to top

The Sweetest Dream

by Doris Lessing (Flamingo)

 978-0006552307 | £8.99 pbk | 496pp

 

the sweetest dreamIt is the early ’60s and Frances Lennox is living in her ex-husband’s (Johnny’s) family home with their sons, her mother-in-law and several other teenagers. Johnny frequently calls round with Communist Party cronies, making more demands on her, yet never helping her financially so she frequently has to shelve her dream of living in her own house and being able to take the acting jobs she covets rather than the better-paid journalistic roles she needs to keep money coming in.

Doris Lessing has stated this is not the third part of her autobiography, which would possibly hurt some people but it certainly reads more like autobiography than fiction. Written in her unusual style with the characteristic, slightly odd phrasing, she takes the reader through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s with this group of people. Politics and relationships are well drawn, but the best part of the novel for me was about Sylvia running a hospital in Africa – the corrupt regime, the squalor and difficulties she faced and the people she dealt with. Brilliantly done!

 

Sue Corbett, Cambs

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

  

Back to top

To Room Nineteen

by Doris Lessing (Flamingo)

978-0007143009 | £7.99 pbk | 400pp


to room nineteenThis collection of short stories was a surprise to me. I had not read any work by Lessing before and was not expecting the crude and explicit nature of some of the stories, such as those scenes included in One Off the Short List. The stories capture human nature precisely, in all its minute details. There are touching moments of reflection, love and innocence, as recorded in Through the Tunnel but there are also stories that show a side to human nature that is not normally discussed in public nor written about. These stories portray base and almost sinful thoughts and feelings frankly without any hesitation; this is particularly evident in A Woman on a Roof. Lessing has a magnificent talent for taking the completely normal and recording all the details in such a way that the normal becomes intriguing. Reading each story, a different human emotion was uncovered and painted honestly by Lessing, however, I did not enjoy reading all the stories and I felt that they were outdated and I could not relate to the characters despite recognising the emotions they were feeling.

 

Victoria Brown


Personal Read: 2 Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

Back to top

Time Bites
by Doris Lessing (HarperPerennial)

978-0007179862 | £8.99 pbk | 384pp


time bitesI found this book very snippetty. It is a compilation of reviews, prefaces and other short pieces of writing by Doris Lessing. Most of the pieces were interesting, particularly the prefaces to authors like Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, and DH Lawrence. Some of the pieces were extremely short.

It is a book to dip into. A reading group that was going to read one of the books she reviews or prefaces might find it useful. As I prefer books I can immerse myself in this was not one of my favourites.

 

Margaret Leigh, Shropshire


Personal read: **

Group read: **

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

Back to top