Into this setting Lessing drops Frances' estranged husband, a major figure in radical politics whom the family mockingly calls Comrade Johnny. His fervent, unsmiling commitment to the revolution is in inverse proportion to his concern for his family's well-being. He has shown up now, Frances and her sons realize, because "the kitchen would be full of young people, so he could not be greeted by rage, tears, reproaches" for his confession that the money he had recently promised them, like all such money, will never be paid. As this realization sinks in, he helps himself unbidden to food, dazzles the young people with his political authority and makes thereader's blood boil with his insolent selfishness.
No writer, with the possible exception of D.H. Lawrence, is as good as Lessing at fostering rage and loathing where it is deserved. Like a Jane Austen of the barricades, she has an exquisite touch, exploring the mechanisms by which relationships, particularly ones involving political opinions, unfold.
Here Johnny, with magnificent insouciance, confides that he has a favor to ask. His crazy second wife's child, fourteen-year-old Tilly, has been near-suicidal. Since Frances does so well with young people, could Tilly, who has been waiting, half-frozen out in the car all this time, join the household? It is an utterly unreasonable request, but when Frances sees the child, she takes her in: "She was a little bird blown by a storm, and Frances was across the room to her, and had her arms round her.... Meanwhile Johnny, just behind the girl, was saying, 'I think bed is indicated,' and then, generally around the room, ‘I'll be off.' But did not go."
This opening is as nourishing and compact as a seed: Everything is present from which an entire novel can grow. We see each young person develop over decades, nevertheless retaining the essential personality of childhood. We move forward into the present and backward to the 1930s, exploring the life of Johnny's straitlaced mother, Julia, who proves to have surprising sympathy and backbone. And while the sphere of action expands outward, the heart of the novel remains Frances' kitchen table.
In her astonishing career, which spans more than fifty years, Lessing has fearlessly produced works of both great authority and great eccentricity. Her fiction has always been rife with political turmoil, the hostilities arising from intimacy and dependence and the threat of violence. But with this novel, the author seems to relax, as if not only her characters but also she can feel at home in the warm kitchen. Her gifts are intact. She can set a scene, delineate a character and move forward or backward in time to establish or dispose of that character with a superfluity of energy that's positively Dickensian.
The story pours out in a torrent, encapsulating the whole turbulent era, yet Lessing never sacrifices the particularity of individual experience. When Julia turns to her aged gentleman friend, she thinks the two of them are as coolly insubstantial as the "shadows a bare branch lays on the earth, a thin and empty tracery, no warmth of flesh anywhere." From this close, personal focus, we pull back to the kind of observation Frances makes thinking of Johnny, a question that could be posed to the entire decade: "How could people unable to organise their own lives, who lived in permanent disarray, build anything worthwhile?" And occasionally Lessing pulls us back even further to make the most general assessment of human nature, noting that "perhaps one's fate is just one's temperament, invisibly attracting people and events. There are people who use ... a certain passivity towards life, watching to see what will arrive on their plate, or drop in their lap, or stare them in the face ... allowing the thing to develop, show itself."
Both the author's companionable, heartfelt tone and the sweep of lives impinging on one another are irresistibly alluring. The book summons us to continue reading; we follow it faithfully and, at the end, discover that it does not conclude neatly, although Lessing certainly has the skill to make a neat bow of the separate strands of narrative if she chooses. With a new generation joining the old around the kitchen table, it simply breaks off, its vitality still at full flood, like a broad river suddenly disappearing underground. Only when it is past do we realize that this has been one of Lessing's most generous works.