I like most of Lessing’s work, but she can be a real downer. This book picks up on some scenes that appear in others, and since this was published in 1974, I’m assuming these were the first appearances, and their refinement came in later works.
Somewhere in her life, Lessing saw or felt that girl children were valued less than boys. She’s got this running as a sub-theme through a lot of her novels, and it’s here in a few of the scenes involving Emily, the teenage protagonist of this novel.
The novel has two protagonists, the second one also being the narrator, a woman in late mid-life who watches from her London flat window as society breaks down around her. Think “The Road” because there’s no specification of what’s happened, just reactions to it. The societal disorder is actually pretty ill-defined, because it’s mostly there to explain why there are bands of roaming young people terrorizing the city. Think “Children of Men.” Something’s gone wrong centrally.
The narrator gets Emily in a very strange way; one day a man knocks on her door and tells her this child is her responsibility from here on out. And the narrator says “Fine.” Think Stephen King, eschewing explanation and yet not sounding implausible because it’s all so human-nature driven.
Then Emily gets into all sorts of scrapes and her pet Hugo is getting eyed up by the gangs for dinner, and it’s not going well, and…. well, the ending is a bit of a shocker. It’s actually happy. That’s all I’m gonna say.
This book requires a lot of the reader. Nothing is what it seems, except is is. Everything is falling apart, and yet some things are getting better for no reason. If you like literary fantasy – and I’m not even sure that’s a genre – you’re going to love Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor. If you like things explained, best pick up something else.
When she published it in 1974, Lessing called it a dystopian fable. Apparently, it was made into a movie in 1981. I don’t even want to think what violence the subtle writing and edgy themes would have suffered in that process. I’d say this book is like steel lace. The beauty is unusual in where it’s found, yet the writing is so delicate in describing bluntness. Steel lace.