What a book! To sketch it out briefly: the book's structure is that of a main narrative following Anna, with her written notebooks interspersed as a sort of series of interwoven vignettes. Anna writes in many of the notebooks as a sort of alter-ego, Ella. Anna lived in (then) Rhodesia, was a communist in the early post-War era, becomes disaffected, and also writes a well-received book on an interracial relationship in Rhodesia in the context of nationalist, socialist freedom movements there. It's a story about post-Stalin communism, mental illness, relationships, writing, and much more. More than I can certainly do justice to.
In many (most?) ways, I found it a very painful book to read. Anna's/Ella's constant unhappiness, seeking selfhood, the struggle of the artist/writer, and attempts at finding happiness and selfhood in men is incredibly frustrating to read about. I wanted to put the book down a great many times, and it took me a couple weeks to read it (note: 600+ pages). Also, after reading it, I read a great many reviews of it. None professional, mostly just amateurs on Good Reads and Amazon. I was struck by how even though the novel is deeply mired in so many issues that are far-removed from present day white, middle class America, such as anti-colonialism, the Cold War, and the psychoanalyses themes, the book still seems profoundly relevant in its explorations of relationships and how society socializes men and women. Of course here, I'm speaking as a man, and not as an upper middle-class post-War British woman.
What was most striking was how she sketched out these horribly abusive relationships, and how her character so eagerly embraced them. I don't know that I've ever read a work of fiction (though Lessing writes that the book is strongly autobiographical) that so poignantly sketches so many different types of abusive relationships with the horrid fascination that makes you want to simultaneously look away and soldier onward. That aspect of the book -- the relationships between people -- most struck a cord with me, far more than the now-uncontroversial splinterings of the Western Communist Parties over the Soviet Union's atrocities in the wake of Stalin's death and Khrushchev's Secret Speech to the 20th Congress.
Perhaps it's how the notebooks are used to express the different voices, the different personalities we all have inside us, that makes these books so seminal and important. After all, in 1962, so few women's voices had ever been heard in literature, and rarer still with the complexity and multiplicities of thought that Lessing writes into Anna. But more than for its historical import, what I liked most about the book (though I hated reading it) was the process of the struggle that Anna goes through. For however mired in history and politics the work may be, women are still socialized to seek self and find strength in men. It was, however, exhausting to read. Every man Anna/Ella seems to meet is cut from the same mold, married, with children, preying on Anna as a "free woman" (unmarried), available for sex, and intriguing as an artist and well-read Communist.
In a lot of ways, the fixation on sex, the inability to form "true" relationships with men, struck me as almost juvenile. But that's of course coming from me and my perspective, as a man in the 21st century. The trope of "woman looking for love and finding it in the wrong places" is well-worn at this point, and was well-worn when the work was written. Anna is painfully self-aware of her self-destructive impulses, and the tropes she falls into, and that makes it far more poignant -- Anna's honesty and self-awareness of her struggle.
I suppose I'll end this rambling review of a book hailed by many feminists (though not Lessing herself) as a seminal feminist work with this: it is a painfully honest book. Its beauty, or its value, is not that it necessarily treads on ground that will be unfamiliar to a 21st century progressive reader, but that it deals with it so honestly.