Novel of the week

The Sweetest Dream

Doris Lessing <em>Flamingo, 479pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0002261618

By prefacing this vast novel with an authorial disclaimer, Doris Lessing creates expectations that she then attempts to wave aside. She has decided not to write the third volume of her autobiography to follow Walking in the Shade, she explains, but her readers should not imagine that this book is a fictional substitute. Though The Sweetest Dream clearly is, to a degree, retracing the terrain of Lessing's life from the 1960s onwards, in London and, later, in Africa, she is somewhat disingenuously asking her readers not to peer too closely at the characters for a likeness of real people, including herself.

The sweetest dream of the title is a phrase to be considered sometimes with irony, sometimes with genuine regret, always as something past. It refers, most obviously, to the death of idealism, the recognition that comes to all of us when our youthful hopes, romantic or political, become sullied. All of us, that is, except Comrade Johnny Lennox, the novel's anti-hero, a dogged communist whose dream for a fairer and more compassionate world is never allowed to intrude into his personal life, as he discards unloved wives and children in pursuit of the revolution. Johnny is almost cartoonish, with the ironic chasm between his professed selfless politics and his utter selfishness, while his first wife, Frances, whom he berates for her lack of interest in the wider picture, embodies generosity and tolerance as she provides physical and emotional sustenance for a house full of difficult youngsters.

Two-thirds of the way through, the novel becomes almost a separate story, as the attention shifts from Frances and London of the 1960s and 1970s to Africa in the 1980s and the newly independent republic of Zimlia. There, Johnny's stepdaughter, Sylvia, works as a doctor and is confronted with the epidemic onslaught of Aids. It would be as reductive to equate Zimlia with Lessing's former homeland of Zimbabwe, and its President Mungozi with Robert Mugabe, as it would be to read the whole novel as a roman-a-clef, but the fierce feeling here has more to do with the country and its troubles than with the characters. In the earlier part of the book, Lessing's characters are so vivid that they carry the story effortlessly. Sylvia, by contrast, is a blander figure; Africa is the dominant character now, and Sylvia's story becomes a vehicle for the author's passion over the political corruption hindering the continent's progress at the cost of thousands of lives.

This book is closer in tone to The Golden Notebook, once considered a seminal feminist novel, than to Lessing's more recent fiction, though she recently made headlines criticising the feminist movement for being too hard on men. The Sweetest Dream is built around her women characters, who are themselves defined in relation to their sons and husbands. They are put-upon and stoical, like Frances, or else hysterical and depressive. The strong women are, to all intents and purposes, celibate, and they end up supporting their essentially weak men by providing a stable domestic base. The men appear to have greater freedom, but they are no happier. Lessing has not so much created an anti-feminist novel, but rather she has portrayed the concrete detail of women's lives over the past half-century - the complexity of emotions and duties that prove, ultimately, more real than any ideological stance.

The Sweetest Dream is not without its inconsistencies and unnecessary digressions; condensing so many years of history even into this many pages means that characters are sometimes discarded unsatisfactorily, and the book can often feel repetitive. Lessing's understanding of relationships - both personal and political - has always been keen; now that she is 81, it is unparalleled. This novel is warm and heartfelt, old-fashioned and ambitious in its historical sweep. But you can't help suspecting that the autobiography would have had a sharper focus.

Stephanie Merritt is deputy literary editor of the Observer

This article first appeared in What would you do?

2001-10-01