Martha Quest – Doris Lessing

Martha QuestIn honour of the death last month of Doris Lessing, I’ve just reread her second novel, Martha Quest. Only this year have I discovered Doris Lessing and realised what I’d been missing.

Martha Quest is the first in Lessing’s Children of Violence series and it is the coming of age story of its eponymous heroine. Set in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, on the eve of the second world war, we follow Martha from her home on a farm where her English parents have settled to make their fortune. But though bad luck and ineptitude, they haven’t done well, and despite an army of black servants and farm labourers, the family are poor.

Martha, constantly at war with her mother, is desperate to escape the farm. But she’s spectacularly good at sabotaging her own chances and she fails to sit her final exams, doing herself out of the chance to go to university. She eventually escapes by taking up a job offer in a law firm in the nearest town. 

Doris Lessing has created a really memorable character in Martha, who the reader can’t help but want to succeed, despite her best efforts to ruin her chances. Martha has gained all her opinions before she leaves the farm in books, mainly supplied by two Jewish brothers who live in the village near the farm and encourage her liberal views. She dreams of an idyllic place where black and white live together as equals, far from the often sickening racial discrimination that she lives amidst. Her strident and passionate voice jumps off the page. She doesn’t want to marry and have children as all the women she knows have done, but she’s living in a time when few other options are open to her.

But despite Martha’s desire to live with people with similarly enlightened views, she can’t help but be caught up in the frantic social life of the young white people in town, that revolves around the ‘sports club’. The new girl in town, she’s the object of ‘the wolves’, the young men who frequent the club and who treat the town as if they own it. There’s a certain desperation to their excessive partying and drinking – they all know that war is imminent and it will change their lives forever.

Doris Lessing brings to life the African veld and the teeming, tropical excess of a town that knows only wet and dry seasons, with real vividness. I loved the way she constantly touched on the landscape and the weather. The disgrace of apartheid is also handled deftly and the reader doesn’t feel preached to, just disgusted by the way some white people treat the black people who serve them via strong examples.

The story is told through an omniscient narrator, but most closely follows Martha’s point of view, and there’s a clear distinction between the ‘wise’ narrator and the more childish views of Martha. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the way Lessing shows how people interact with each other, the complexities of their see-sawing feelings, particularly in what they say to each other. She does this by constantly detailing the conflicting feelings Martha has in different situations, which is quite different to the way modern literature is written (the book was published in 1952). At times, its exhausting reading about how violently Martha’s mood swings within even one moment, but its a style I did like. I wonder if anyone else is writing like this today – most of the contemporary writing I’ve read lately steers clear of naming character’s emotions so readily.

Plot-wise, there’s not a lot going on as we follow Martha’s emotional turmoil and as this is the first book in a series of five, the story feels unfinished. I will be reading the others, but not before I tackle The Golden Notebook, her most famous, and feminist, novel. Its a tag she apparently resented during her life, though she is resolutely regarded as a feminist writer.

This is a wonderful book and I’ve put so many marks in my Kindle version to come back to, that its already a key influence for my own writing.