A woman writer struggling toward living an authentic life in the modern world is the focus of action for this complex novel. As the novel opens, Anna Freeman Wulf has written a commercially successful novel based on her experiences as a young woman during World War II in South Central Africa, in a country called Southern Rhodesia. Now living in London on the royalties from this novel, Anna cares for her thirteen-year-old daughter, Janet. In her role as mother, Anna finds emotional stability and meaning; some of the best scenes in the book involve Anna and her daughter. Meanwhile, Anna writes continually in her notebooks to explore the larger meaning of her life and of her writing.
Anna keeps four separate notebooks; the entries in these notebooks occupy more than three-quarters of the total novel, and they are responsible for the complex structure of the book. The blue notebook is a diary of the daily events of her life; the red notebook is concerned with politics; the black notebook is concerned with her previous life in Africa and with her professional life as a writer; and the yellow notebook is for initial drafts and ideas for stories. Entries from all four notebooks are interspersed among the sections of ongoing action of the fictional present, the summer of 1957. Those sections by themselves constitute a short novel in which the dramatic interest revolves around Anna’s life and her relationship with her friend, Molly Jacobs. A few years earlier, Anna and her daughter Janet had shared a house with Molly and her son, Tommy; Anna now lives a half mile away, but the two women maintain their close friendship.
The nature of this friendship is one of the central subjects of the novel: Both women are divorced, and both are committed to rearing a child while living a life which is outside the traditional boundaries of society. They are both members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and both believe in the nonmaterialistic values of a life-style which leaves them open to experiences in the world. Both women sense that their friendship is one of the key factors which enables them to survive in this life-style.
One central event in the “Free Women” sections is the attempted suicide of Tommy, which leaves him blind. In part, Anna and Molly blame themselves for the incident, and Tommy plays upon this guilt, controlling their lives in a manner which they deeply resent but feel powerless to change. The notebook entries enable Anna to explore this suicide attempt from a number of perspectives. In her blue notebooks, her diary, she re-creates her relationship with Tommy and analyzes it directly. In her yellow notebook, she is in the process of writing a novel called “The Shadow of the Third.” Although Anna is never able to finish this novel, progress on it is important to her own development as a person. In this novel, the protagonist, a writer named Ella, is writing a novel about a young man who commits suicide. Anna is able to explore her thoughts on the actual suicide attempt by Tommy through the fictional suicide in her character Ella’s novel.
This situation is only one of the many parallels between Anna’s life and the fictional life of her protagonist Ella. Like Anna in her relationship with Molly, Ella lives with another woman, Julia. The mutual support which the women find in this friendship is a parallel development of the sisterhood theme explored in the relationship between Anna and Molly in the “Free Women” sections. Another parallel is also crucial to Anna’s development toward living an authentic life; like Anna, the fictional Ella falls deeply in love with a man who finally leaves her after their intense relationship. After her lover leaves her, Ella feels herself changing in ways which she cannot control. She becomes less self-confident, less mentally independent. In writing Ella’s story, Anna discovers that she herself has been more profoundly affected by her lover’s leaving her than she previously...
(The entire section is 1,664 words.)