The Summer Before the Dark by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is one of my favorite books ever. And so when it came to choosing books to read for this mailing and I came across The Summer Before The Dark on my shelf, it was an easy choice. It isn’t in first person, so it didn’t fit that criteria. But, it is a very close third, stream-of-consciousness at times, so it wasn’t way off the mark. Perusing it further, I learned that it was about a woman’s “odyssey into the perils of freedom” (cover description) and well, that definitely seemed to parallel the novel I’m working on.
The Summer Before The Dark was a painful read and I suppose that was intentional. The main character is pained, to the point of making herself physically ill thinking about her life, “A woman stood on her back step, arms folded, waiting. Thinking? She would not have said so. She was trying to catch hold of something, or to lay it bare” (1). The book opens with this brooding and continues brooding through the end when Kate Brown (protagonist) “let herself unobserved out of the flat, and made her way to the bus stop and so home” (247). Kate has spent a summer alone for the first time since she married and had four children that are now all grown. Maybe for the first time ever? She takes a job, runs off with a lover, falls ill, moves in with a young (and also brooding over her own life choices) woman.
Why not just write it in first person since the book is in her head most of the time and is entirely about her inner struggle? The narrator answers that question slyly in reference to why Kate tells her young roommate Maureen about the symbolic reoccurring dream she’s having: “There was a falseness. It was because she was evading something by putting it in the third person” (209). Kate is evading the fact that all her worrying about how others perceive her is “her self-chosen prison” (127). Kate is imprisoned by her own mind, by her own thinking, by her lack of confidence in herself. Lessing conveys that by showing us Kate in the third person, but giving us access to her thoughts in the moment.
Now, here is where I come to looking at the element of style that is most relevant to my current work. Kate (and Lessing—it’s all enmeshed) consistently makes statements as questions, demonstrating Kate’s lack of confidence and the fact that she is trying to move toward answers.
This technique of putting the character’s thoughts on the page in such a interrogative style would work just as well with a first person narrator (as in my novel). It also happens that I’m creating a character who is arriving at something, struggling, moving toward self-actualization. And, one area of weakness I see in my novel in its current draft is expanding my protagonist’s thinking about and reaction to the events described in an authentic and revealing way. Maybe I’ve done some of this already. It’s likely that if I were to go back over my manuscript, I might find some examples of this. After reading Lessing, though, I’m more aware of it as an intentional narrative choice. “Perhaps she had been insensitive?” (2); “They were indifferent to each other?” (75); “He did not like Jeffrey, but did like Kate in spite of her immorality?” (115); “It seemed as if they were waiting. For Kate to finish her dream?” (221) I’m envisioning that in my own work there will be a point at which the questioning stops: the point where the protagonist is hit by a car, perhaps?

 

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