- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

THE GRANDMOTHERS: FOUR SHORT NOVELS

By Doris Lessing

Harper Collins, $23.95, 320 pages

REVIEWED BY JUDITH CHETTLE

For all who fear that growing old means a decline in powers, a withering of the imagination — in short, the disappearance of the creative energy that puts a spring in the step — Doris Lessing’s latest book vigorously suggests otherwise.

Now in her eighties but with the zest of a much younger writer, Mrs. Lessing is still exploring uncomfortable ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom. In a long writing life that began when she was a young woman living in what is now Zimbabwe, the author has written with almost brutal honesty about subjects as varied as colonialism, racism, sexism, and the environment.

This penchant for telling the truth, however discomforting it is, has often disappointed those eager to claim her as their spokesperson. Too honest to toe the party line for long — she was briefly a Communist — Mrs. Lessing has, like all good writers, tried to discern the fundamental truths of a situation, even if they are unpalatable.

The four short novels that make up “The Grandmothers” are typically forthright, provocative, and original. In an unadorned, crisp and distinctive style (African veld prose as it were), Mrs. Lessing describes the plight of a varied group of protagonists, whose lives have been defined by the decisions they have made.

Some decisions were taken impulsively, others with careful forethought — but once the characters made them, they did not waver even when the costs were high.

While each novel is distinctive in setting and situation, all explore such familiar Lessing themes as the role of aging women, the fragility of civilization, and relations between the races. And as is typical of Mrs. Lessing, these are not valedictory works suffused with wisdom gained and now graciously shared, but rather, robust stories of men and women vitally engaged in living.

The first of the novels, which gives the book its title, is a cool if unsettling tale of an intense friendship between two young girls. Their relationship has unforeseen consequences that only become apparent when the two are grandmothers.

The story begins with a deceptively tranquil family scene: three generations of two families enjoying refreshments at a seaside tearoom. There are the two grandmothers, Roz and Lil; their two sons Tom and Ian; and their four children. Daughters-in-law Mary and Hannah are not there, yet …

The sun is shining, and all seems right with the world, but as they drink fruit juice and eat sandwiches, Tom’s wife Mary comes slowly up the path, a packet of love letters in her hand.

She might as well be carrying a bomb, for what she has read in the letters — written by her husband Tom to Lil, and shared with sister-in-law Hannah — destroys the family as effectively as any explosive device.

With the scene set, Mrs. Lessing returns to Roz and Lil’s past, and their friendship. It began innocently enough in childhood, but in maturity became lethal. Their closeness is not sexual (though some suspect they are lesbians). Rather, they share a bond that has impelled them to lead the lives of their choosing.

So Roz, who produced plays, preferred to stay on in her home that was opposite Lil’s when her husband Harold took up a position in another city. And Lil, widowed early, continued her husband’s business.

But their sons grew up, and though the friendship between Roz and Lil remained strong as ever, its consequences for the next generation were less innocent as closeness became tainted by sex and seduction.

In another of the novels, “Victoria and the Staveneys,” race and class in contemporary England are subtly skewered. Victoria, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, decides to give her illegitimate daughter the future she deserves.

Victoria gets to know Thomas and Edward Staveney in grade school. They are at the school because their wealthy, liberal parents want them to see how the other half lives.

Following a brief visit to their comfortable home, and before the boys are sent off to expensive boarding schools, Victoria realizes how impoverished her family is —she sleeps on a pull?out bed in her aunt’s living room. The young woman becomes determined to make a better life for herself.

After graduation, Victoria sees Thomas again in the music shop where she’s temporarily working. Seduced by nostalgia for the Staveney way of life, she has a brief affair with him. She falls pregnant, gives birth to Mary, but doesn’t tell Thomas.

She marries and soon after is widowed; then, left with two other children, she gets to thinking about the Staveneys and Mary’s future. So Victoria contacts the older Staveneys who, as Mrs. Lessing deftly shows, are members of the determinedly enlightened class, proud of their many politically-correct virtues.

They are delighted with Mary — a mixed-race grandchild is a perfect opportunity for gratifying complacency. But, as usual, there is a price to be paid, and the clear-eyed realist Mrs. Lessing knows who will be paying it.

The remaining two short novels in this collection, “The Reason for It” and “A Love Child,” while fresh and readable, are less compelling. In the first, an old man in an ancient post-apocalyptic civilization recalls the fatal choice he and his fellow cohorts (“The Twelve”) made when, as the young elite of their country, they chose one of their peers, Derod, to rule.

Decades later, the man observes the distressing changes in the country and realizes that he and his colleagues are just as responsible as Derod — a “beautiful empty boy” and dangerously complacent — for the decline.

“A Love Child,” set during World War II, is a cautionary tale about obsessive love, as Mrs. Lessing deftly links a nightmarish voyage on a troopship from England — U-boats are everywhere and the sea is rough — to the birth of an illegitimate child, which haunts the protagonist for the rest of his life.

James Reid, in the army and en route to India, is ill when the ship finally puts into Cape Town. The citizens are famously hospitable, and James is soon staying at the comfortable home of Daphne, a married woman.

They have a brief affair, and later, stationed in India, he learns that Daphne has had a child. Though he survives the war and marries, James becomes obsessed with Daphne and the child, who he believes is his.

Mrs. Lessing manages to be intellectually provocative while telling stories that seem deceptively ordinary, but they are ones in which she fearlessly tackles big themes. She is as good as ever.

Judith Chettle is a South Africa-born writer now living permanently in the United States. She reviews frequently for The Washington Times.

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