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on 14 February 2003
Under My Skin
Doris Lessing's autobiography traces her political and emotional development from her earliest childhood memories to her growing, overwhelming, disenchantment with provincial (as she saw it) small town life. "Small town" life for her was pre-WWII Salisbury in the (then) British colony of Southern Rhodesia. Salisbury was a complacent capital city of 10,000 white settlers in a country the size of Spain.
Lessing is quick to debunk the myth of the prosperous, close knit, white farming community - poverty was a real fact of life both for blacks and whites. Her most vivid childhood memories are of escaping from the family home and off into the limitless veld. The emptiness of the veld parallels her youthful emptiness and her growing convictions that the communist party represents a real hope for the world.
The book, a masterpiece of autobiographical writing, is brutally honest in parts and wilfully obscure in others. Some of her emotional mistakes are hardly glanced at (leaving her first two children, for example) but others (the joys of being part of a fast, hard drinking sect, embracing radical politics) are wonderfully engaging. Reading her thoughts you could be forgiven for thinking that the "party" was the only opposition to conservative white rule in Salisbury. This is what makes her book so appealing, her supreme skill as a novelist allowing us to enter the heady world of rushed meetings, leftist newspaper deliveries, drinks on the sports club verandah and back in time to find the cook still waiting to prepare supper. Naturally it couldn't last and Lessing is far too intelligent to think that that is all there is to life. The book ends in 1949 as she arrives in London, apprehensive and hopeful in the capital city of her parents.
This is more than a 'who-did-what' from a long time ago, times and dates are (probably deliberately) rarely mentioned. It is the personalities and the ideas - most of all the ideas - sliding from youthful enthusiasm to mature realism which fuse the book with life and vitality. 'Under My Skin', published in 1992, is that rare thing, a candid autobiography written by a consummate novelist with skills to spare. Doris Lessing is a national treasure.