08 October 2008

Martha Quest, by Doris Lessing

One of the most marvelous experiences one can have, I think, when reading literature, is a kind of shock of recognition - where you read a passage and think, yes. That's exactly what it's like, and I never even thought about it or realized it, but my god, there it is. It's an incredible feeling. I wrote about it a bit in my entry on Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, but that was a fairly specific, constrained kind of emotion being described. Whereas reading Martha Quest was like re-experiencing the last 10 years of my life. It was amazing, and even slightly embarrassing. The novel tells the story of young Martha as she matures from a grumpy adolescence to an even grumpier adulthood, and while I imagine that a lot of readers would find her rather difficult to get along with, I immediately sympathized with her peculiar sort of anguish. She's desperately unhappy, but equally desperately longs to be happy, and the world just never quite works out the way she wants it to. She's both fiercely intelligent and assertive and strangely passive, in a way that I think many women are. If you ever wonder why so many of the fantastically brilliant women that you know seem to date absolute clods, I think the answer is hidden within the pages of this book. 

Also, though, it's a really interesting text in terms of colonial literature, in that it's a very nuanced exploration of racial and nationalistic attitudes in South Africa before the Second World War. In that, it's a valuable text for any student of race, post/colonialism, etc. 

All that said, it's not an amazing novel. It's nowhere near as brilliant as The Good Terrorist, which I maintain is absolute genius. The plot line is fairly bland, and it trails off rather suddenly at the end - though it's part of a series, as I understand, so perhaps it's meant to encourage you to pick up the next one. But in any case, it's not a magisterial book so much as a rather brilliant character study. 

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