The Golden Notebook, perhaps Doris Lessing’s most famous work, is deep. Heavy-going is to put it lightly. It really takes it out of you.
It’s also not at all what I was expecting. I came into The Golden Notebook pretty much unaware of anything about it, including the plot. I bought it because I was about to start a three day long train journey halfway across America and it was on offer on Kobo (£1.99 – bargain!). Light travel reading it is not, not only with the subject matter, but also with the length, and also with the structure.
Anna, an author of a successful book which has provided for her since its release (and our protagonist), has 4 separate notebooks, each one used for a different purpose – a red one to note her dealings with the communist party, a yellow one to write potential new stories, a black one to remember and document her time in Rhodesia and a blue one in which is recorded her thoughts, feelings and dreams. These notebooks, along with a section called Free Women, make up the beginning of the book, and as such give it an unusual structure. You spend hours reading about Rhodesia, and suddenly your in the middle of a fictional story written by Anna, a warped version of her real ruined and ended relationship. It really takes some getting used to, but the disjointedness is intended – Anna can’t put her whole life together successfully, and that is demonstrated just through the structure.
More than anything else, this is where Doris Lessing shines. She could tell us the whole story in the third person, or even have Anna just writing one single diary, but through throwing the plot around, as well as the style in which Anna writes, it creates far more discomfort and confusion than could be created through mere text alone.
Anna’s journey is uncomfortable. It’s amazing how some elements of her life seem like universal truths to women, both of that time, and of now, and how some of them are very exclusive to Anna. She is very much her own person, but she is also so relatable that when she starts to lose her focus on reality it can be very discomforting to read. There were times where I would feel like I was going mad because she was, a very strange sensation indeed. I’m not sure if that would be the same if I were a man reading this book – more than any book I have read The Golden Notebook seems to be very feminine, even more so than Jane Eyre; there are events, or even feelings, that she has that just seem to sum up certain aspects of being a women (though she also has some that are very alien to me). Even just her talking with her best friend Molly is so accurate of how women talk with each other – even if I have never spoken on the topics about which she speaks to Molly with my own friends, I can appreciate how they talk, how comfortable they are with each other, and the manner with which they speak.
I still have not finished it as I’m not sure if I will enjoy where Anna’s journey ends. It is a difficult book to read, and much like The Handmaid’s Tale it is disturbing, essential reading – especially for women – and has affected me quite strongly, to a degree that I was not really expecting. I would highly recommend it.