Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Book review - The Black Madonna

The moment when Doris Lessing stepped out of a cab and had a microphone stuck under her nose to get her reaction to winning the Nobel Prize was a classic piece of television. She seemed to be indifferent and it was only on a follow-up interview on Newsnight that the achievement seemed to have started to sink in. For me the name Lessing was one that had never really been bleeping on the radar so the prize and the coverage had the result of putting it in my mind. It also helped that my local library put together all of her books promoting them.

The Black Madonna is a collection of short stories with the title story going first. They all have the same thing in common being set against a colonial background but they cover different issues.

Some of the stand out stories concern the gap between the whites and the blacks and the discovery that the later has pride and justifiable resentment. The girl who wanders into the native village describes wonderfully the feeling of alienation that the natives must feel back in her world. Then there is the cook who heals a boy but refuses to share the secret with the scientist that hopes to exploit it to make a fortune. There is a great ability to lift the curtain and show you on the other side.

Lessing manages to use a few pages to deal with racial, class and sexual issues that other writers might have resorted to acres of print to get the same message across. Her character portraits are deep but never overpowering and there is often an autobiographical feel to it with the leading characters being young girls.

In some ways the world that Lessing describes is a world that has gone much like that Kipling but there is a difference. Her stories comment on the world she describes and the characters show the ugliness and gap between those who believe they are masters and those who have to play the role of servants. The reality is that those who serve are the real masters of the land they live on and their continued existence and often silence is a protest rather than an acceptance of slavery.

Would this give you a desire to read more Lessing? It would but it would also provide you with an indication of where she is coming from. It is not that often you come across a voice that is so well defined and so clearly feminine. Most of these stories reserve the insight into the racial colonial world to girls and women. That is something that might make me read more because there is a style here that is distinctive. But as suspected this collection of short stories is an ideal starting point.

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