Doris Lessing has always been interested in the relationship between the individual and the collective. In this, her twenty- fifth novel, she writes of many individuals and the groups they form, then puts them all into a variety of larger societal and political contexts. As always, Lessing hits hard on global economic politics, particularly on issues of race, poverty, and the lack of adequate leadership from the political hierarchy.
Much of the novel is set in the 1960’s in a big, three- story house with a basement apartment located in Hampstead, London, owned by German-born Julia von Arne Lennox. The fact that it is a spacious house changes the lives and fates of a large cast of characters. Julia, recently widowed, invites Frances, the former wife of her only son, Johnny, to come live there with her two sons, Andrew and Colin. Frances does so reluctantly, fearing a loss of independence, but she lacks the money to raise the two boys by herself. “Comrade Johnny” is always more involved with politics and other wives than he is in doing anything so bourgeois as paying child support. After Frances moves in, Julia spends the first few years virtually as a recluse in the four upper-story rooms while Frances and her sons have the rest of the house.
It is not really clear how so many other people came to live in the house. Part of it is the spirit of the 1960’s, as young people whom Andrew and Colin know—James, Rose, Jill, Sophia, Geoffrey and his shadow Daniel, Lucy, and others—come and go as they rebel against their families and conventional ideas. Part of it is Comrade Johnny’s inability to be responsible for others and Frances’s reluctant willingness to take them in—Johnny’s mentally disturbed former wife Phyllida and her daughter Sylvia in particular. It is shy and suicidal Sylvia who comes first, literally dumped there by Comrade Johnny one cold night when she is fourteen. Colin brings home his schoolmate Franklin, from Zimlia, Africa, who is in England for schooling. The teenagers and adults come to the house at different times, getting to know those who are already living there or using the place as a short- term hostel or refuge.
As the individuals configure their relationships with one another in this flowing river of people moving in and out of the house, they all share abundant talk and the abundant meals that Frances prepares for them. Comrade Johnny makes unannounced appearances, most conveniently around mealtime, often bringing others with him, such as Comrade Mo, and they eat heartily. Then Comrade Johnny stands leaning against the kitchen wall, a repeated tableaux, sermonizing about his political activities and his dream of a Marxist/communist revolution. No one much likes Comrade Johnny, not even his mother Julia, but he is admired in his communist circles and always finds people to support him.
Frances Lennox, as the de facto Earth Mother for the group, is the focus for the first half of the book. Sylvia is the center of much of the second half, set in Africa in Zimlia (a thinly veiled Zimbabwe), where she struggles as a doctor in a hopelessly impoverished village. Peppered throughout the novel are scenes focusing on other characters as each develops over the years. The experience of spending time in the big house remains in the memories of these disparate people, for good or ill. The house, with its practical and symbolically expandable kitchen table, is the common bond.
At the end of the novel, most of the group are well accounted for. Some are dead, some are rich. Frances has become a respected writer. They all still know what the others are doing and their lives continue to intersect, despite their varied fates. What they are doing or what they have become through the years may be surprising, yet they have the same personalities they demonstrated in the loose collective of the big house in London.
Doris Lessing, in an “Author’s Note,” says that she is not writing volume three of her autobiography (following Under My Skin, 1994, and Walking in...
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