In some cases the most impassionate feminist judgements are given not by pointing at the numerous injustices perpetrated against women every day and in every sphere of life, but by laying bare the reality of a life spent in full compliance with a woman’s assigned place in her society. Showing what is left of an individual spirit after a lifetime of methodical moulding into a function. The result, as revealed by Doris Lessing, is deafeningly damning, even in her detached, monotonous, seemingly disinterested storytelling.
I’m ashamed to admit it but I would have passed over Lessing altogether because of her antifeminist sentiments expressed in several interviews, if I hadn’t come across this book at a street corner. Just goes to show how easily I slip into a limiting pattern of thought, even when it comes to something I make a conscious effort to stay open-minded and broaden my understanding of.
This is the most feminist fiction book I’ve ever read.
But it doesn’t stop there. It’s not just a book about the condition of women, although it is that, unambiguously and unapologetically, it’s a book about the human condition. And paradoxically – or perhaps logically – this is what makes it so intensely feminist: it’s a novel that explores the construct of Woman to expose not a system of injustice, but the very fabric of humanity.
(Another point of surprise and admiration for me was the clairvoyance with regard to current events shown in the book. In 1973, Lessing clearly saw the decline of rebellion and hope and the beginning of the neoconservative movement (going strong to this day in the West).)
The novel largely lack action and until the last quarter, the important stuff happens inside the protagonist’s (Kate’s) head. She has long felt that, now that she’s raised her four children, she needs to take some times to herself to think over the rest of her life, and the path that’s led her to it. She’s offered a job at a global charity organisation’s conference which opens the door for her to get away from her comfort zone and do her planned exploration. Going through Istanbul and rural Spain, forced to relive her old roles of Mother, comforting and healing presence, a point of equilibrium in others’ lives, she eventually manages to tear free from her decades-strong bonds to the identity she’s allowed others to construct for her, and reaches places she didn’t know were there (and finally understands her best friend, the balancing presence in her life), through a sort of freestyle therapy with a strange young woman she ends up sharing a flat with for a few weeks. No judgements or conclusions are offered to the reader. The ending suggests it was all in vain, that the cycle starts all over again with every young woman who goes back to her roots and marries a boy of her social circle, but there’s a very distinct seed of hope sown there, too: Kate may be going back, but she’s going back with her natural hair. She’s going back with renewed knowledge of her, her family, the world and her place in it, and even though that’s ultimately useless, given the grand scheme of things, it’s something.
As I said above, it’s not just a story of how women are groomed from birth to be a function and not people, how they are formed through the gazes of others, moulded by the rays of expectations and needs cast their way throughout their lives. It’s also a story of how people are. Kate’s journey inside herself is not merely the journey of a middle-aged middle-class housewife, it’s a journey anyone brave enough to peer inside could make, and find more or less the same things: we’re all projections of others’ expectations. We wriggle in the narrow constraints of the social space we’re given and pretend it’s boundless. And when we dare step outside by refusing to put on the mask assigned to us, we cease to exist: nobody notices us, we don’t fill up any space with any meaning, we become useless and therefore invisible. But for Kate, the realisation of all this, through not just insight, but experimentation (she changes her appearance and manner and observes how (or whether) others see her) proves liberating for her, because she manages to go down to the bone, to what she is without the social strata layered on her, to her essence (the seal from her dream IMO) – and she may not find much there, but the point is that she’s found it. And that’s plenty.
And finally, the most impressive aspect of this thoroughly impressive book is the depth of personality Kate exhibits. It’s what makes it a true novel. Throughout her dispassionate ruminations on her past, present and the icy wind wafting her way from the future, throughout her struggles to shed her skin and trudge through an arduous journey, she blossoms as a character suffused with authentic feeling, rich in emotional detail, full of passions, fears, shame, doubt, aspirations, questions, transformations that ring true in every word on the page. To me, this is what lifts this novel up to a prime example of excellent literature.