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Five Doris Lessing books you must read


Lots of articles paying tribute to Doris Lessing, who died at the age of 94 yesterday, have appeared this morning. The Guardian lists her five best books (see below) but the author wrote more than 50 books, including novels, poetry, drama and short stories, so you have a huge selection to choose from. Lessing’s obituary is worth a read as here was a person who lived a full life.

The Grass is Singing (1950)

Lessing arrived in London in the spring of 1949 with £20 and the manuscript of a novel drawing heavily on her life in Africa, exploring the power and fear at the heart of the colonial experience. When Mary Turner’s husband becomes sick she takes over the running of their failing Rhodesian farm. Gradually she begins to develop a relationship with one of their black servants, Moses.

The Golden Notebook (1962)

This account of the fractured lives of British women after the war has been hailed as a feminist masterpiece. Framed by a third-person story of a writer, Anna Wulf, and her friend Molly, the novel weaves together four of Anna’s notebooks which mirror the different strands of her life – Africa, the Communist Party, a doomed love affair and her journal – to arrive at a fifth , The Golden Notebook, which binds them all together. The Swedish Academy called it one of a “handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship”.

Shikasta (1979)

The first in her five-volume series of SF novels, Canopus in Argus, Shikasta is the story of a fallen paradise, a planet cut adrift from the influence of the advanced civilisation that has brought peace, prosperity and accelerated development. Johor travels to Rohonda and finds it with too little “Spirit of We Feeling”, a world which has turned to greed, war and destruction.

The Good Terrorist (1985)

After two short novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers, Lessing returned to publishing under her own name with this story of a well-intentioned revolutionary, Alice, who lives in a north London squat with a motley bunch of fellow militants.

Alfred and Emily (2008)

Combining fiction and non-fiction, this exploration of her parents’ lives begins with a 137-page novella, a golden-hued re-imagining of what might have happened if her parents had never married. The second half returns to reality: Alfred loses a leg in the trenches, meets Emily in the Royal Free Hospital and then leaves for Persia and Rhodesia. Would Emily have been happier if she could have become a matron, if she could have re-connected with her love of literature?

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Richard Davies

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