“The older you get the freer you are,” Doris Lessing told a British interviewer the year before last. In a long and distinguished career, one of Lessing’s marked characteristics has been that she’s not afraid to change her mind. This new novel bears evidence of rethinking. Its sixty-five-year-old heroine is anything but free. She is chained to her past selves and in thrall to emotions she had thought would never trouble her again.
The book begins with a description of a room. It is both a modern office, with a fax machine and a word processor, and a theatrical props store, with masks and posters, a red velvet curtain, and a gold bust of a Roman woman: it’s all our todays, and all our yesterdays. The viewpoint is eerily detached, as if Lessing were indeed describing a stage set. Onto the set walks a woman—the novel’s performer. Sarah Durham is long widowed, still attractive. She has two children settled on another continent; they will not impinge on the narrative, as they do not impinge on her life. She is a confident and energetic woman, and believes that certain troublesome aspects of life—like the business of falling in love—are behind her. She can look on the romantically troubled with a cold eye, and deplore their antics. Yet she detects in herself the beginnings of the reflex intolerance of the old, and so she issues herself a warning. “There seems to be a rule that what you condemn will turn up sooner or later, to be lived through.” It is a forceful point, when made on page two; its impact is diminished when it is made again on page nine: “You must suffer what you despise.”
The crowded rooms of Sarah’s flat hold all the detritus of her life. Half-heartedly, she is contemplating a cleanup. There is one messy corner of her life which she knows will defy the duster and mop. For years, she has devoted time and energy to her niece, Joyce, who has been a problem since she was born. Unable to get on with other children, she has grown up aimless and feckless, and Sarah cannot imagine why. Her family is an ordinary one, her two sisters are as normal as can be. In her late teens she developed anorexia, made suicide attempts. The parents have managed to edge out of their responsibilities, and Joyce has spent months at a time living with Sarah. She has now moved out, runs with a druggy crowd, reappears from time to time to disrupt Sarah’s working life.
Sarah is involved in managing a prestigious and successful fringe theater. Her colleagues are sketched for us—in too much detail and yet with too little thought: the talented designer, a homosexual, is “volatile, shrill, and moody.” They have worked together for years, think of themselves as a team, and are all versatile and ready to…
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