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The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing

 

Recommendation:

 

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Refuge

Doris Lessing’s recent, sprawling, 500-page novel, The Sweetest Dream, centers on a home in London, and the many people who find refuge in that place and in the people who live there. The core characters are members of an extended family, and we learn about their past, and watch their future unfold as they gather around the table in this home. We learn about life’s passages and caring for others. We watch the flight from fascism, and the failure of communism. We see the struggles of people trying to respond to the needs of an emerging African nation. We’re barraged with the complexity of relationships, and the costs of love. Some refugees thrive as a result of their time in this London house, and share the love they received with others. Some of the refugees remain takers, never returning part of their abundance to others. Lessing captures some of the big themes of the 20th century, and captures how they played out in the lives of people trying to make a go of life. The house itself seems like a central character, and provides the stability many need during times of radical change. Here’s an excerpt when one of the house refugees has returned from serving poor people in a remote African hospital:

“Colin opened the door to a timid ring, and saw what he thought was a mendicant child or a gipsy and then, with a roar of ‘It’s Sylvia, it’s little Sylvia,’ lifted her inside. There he hugged her, and she shed tears on his cheeks, bent down to rub hers, like a cat’s greeting.
In the kitchen he sat her at the table, the table, again extended to its full length. He poured a river of wine into a big glass and sat opposite her, full of welcome and pleasure.
 ‘Why didn’t you say you were coming? But it doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see you.’
Sylvia was trying to lift her mood to his height, because she was dispirited. London sometimes having this effect on Londoners who have been away from it and who, while living on it, have had so little idea of its weight, its multitudinous gifts and capacities. London, after the Mission, was hitting her like a blow somewhere in the stomach region. It is a mistake to come too fast from, let’s say Kwadere, to London: one needs something life the equivalent of a decompression chamber.
She sat smiling, taking little sips of wine, afraid to do more, for she was not used to wine these days, feeling the house like a creature all around her and above her and below her, her house, the one she had known best as home when she had been conscious of what was going on in it, the atmospheres and airs of every room and stretches of the staircase. Now the house was populous, she could feel that, it was full of people, but they were alien presences, not her familiars and she was grateful for Colin, sitting there smiling at her. It was ten in the evening. Upstairs someone was playing a tune she ought to know, probably something famous like ‘Blue Swede Shows’ – it had that claim on her – but she couldn’t name it.”

Some pages later, when Sylvia returns to Africa, here’s what Lessing writes:

“On the evening after Sylvia returned from London, standing exactly in the same spot, she looked down at her hospital and was attacked by that failing of the hear and purpose that so often afflicts people just back from Europe. What she saw down there, the assemblage of poor huts or sheds, was tolerable only if she did not think of London, or Julia’s house, with its solidity, its safety, its permanence, each room so full of things that had an exact purpose, serving a need among a multiplicity of needs, so that every day any person in it was supported as if by so many silent servitors with utensils, tools, appliances, gadgets, surfaces to sit on or to put things on – an intricacy of always multiplying things.”

Lessing’s mastery of language comes forth in that excerpt, as on most pages of The Sweetest Dream. It was “a timid ring.” He poured “a river of wine.” She was “feeling the house like a creature all around her.” Delights like that fill the book. Each character has their version of sweet dreams, and for some of them, the dreams come true. Enjoy reading The Sweetest Dream.

Steve Hopkins, May 1, 2002

 

ă 2002 Hopkins and Company, LLC

 

The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2002 issue of Executive Times

 

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