Doris Lessing tackles the 1960s and their legacy head-on in her most involving, most personal, most political novel for some years
It’s the morning of the Sixties and it’s suppertime at Freedom Hall, the most welcoming household in North London. Frances Lennox stands at her stove, bringing another feast to readiness before ladling it out to the motley, youthful crew assembled around her hospitable table – here are her two sons, smarting at their upbringing but beginning to absorb their mother’s lessons. Around them are ranged their schoolfriends and girlfriends and ex-friends and new friends fresh off the street. The feast begins. Wine and talk flow. Everything is being changed and being challenged. And here in this kitchen, the nutritious tolerance can be sniffed.
But what is being tolerated? And where will it end? Over there in the corner is Frances’ ex-husband, Comrade Johnny, who delivers his rousing tirades, then laps up the adolescent adulation while he laps up his soup, before disappearing into the night to evade the clutches of his responsibilities. Upstairs sits Johnny’s exiled mother, funding all, but finding she can embrace only one lost little girl – Sylvia, who has to travel to Africa, to freshly, fervently independent Zimlia, to find out who she is and what she wants. And, yes, what of the Africans, what will they tolerate?
These are the people dreaming the Sixties into being and the people who on the morning after all that dreaming, woke to find they were the ones taxed with clearing up and making good.
No living novelist in Britain is in a better position than Doris Lessing to look at what the world did in that eventful decade. And perhaps no-one else has better expressed the difference between the male experience of the 1960s and what followed and the female experience of the same thing than she has here in The Sweetest Dream.