Panther Books, 1952, 271 pages
Intelligent, sensitive, and fiercely passionate, Martha Quest is a young woman living on a farm in Africa, feeling her way through the torments of adolescence and early womanhood. She is a romantic idealistic in revolt against the puritan snobbery of her parents, trying to live to the full with every nerve, emotion, and instinct laid bare to experience. For her, this is a time of solitary reading daydreams, dancing -- and the first disturbing encounters with sex. The first of Doris Lessing's timeless Children of Violence novels, Martha Quest is an endearing masterpiece.
I'd heard that Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing's Children of Violence series was one of those covert speculative fiction forays that litfic authors sometimes indulge in, a historical epic that moves into post-apocalyptic fiction, and since I rather liked The Good Terrorist, I was looking forward to checking this series out.
Unfortunately, the first book, Martha Quest, completely put me off of it. It takes place in an unspecified South African nation in the 1930s, and there isn't a hint of anything outside the mundane. Very well written literary fiction, with delicate prose and nuanced characterization, and it's boring and dull and nothing really happens, and yes I am being redundant to emphasize the "boring" part.
Martha Quest, the eponymous protagonist, is an English girl living among Boers and natives on the veld, with a hypochondriac father and a fluttery, anxious mother, both of whom she pretty much despises. Martha considers herself a proper leftist and makes a show of righteous disgust at racism, classism, and sexism, but she's too young and unworldly to really do much with her convictions, something which is pointed out to her repeatedly (directly and indirectly) by her Boer "best friend" and by the Jewish boys who run the "kaffir store."
She runs off to the big city to find work (and escape her parents and the stultifying environment of their pitiful little farm), and soon falls into a life of partying and debauchery. At first she's the hot new flavor with the gadabouts, but as she goes through a series of boyfriends, none of whom she really likes, she becomes increasingly disillusioned and disgruntled. The book ends with her getting married to the most unobjectionable young man she can find, and it's already obvious it's not going to last.
After reading reviews of the subsequent books, it appears the only "speculative" element in this series comes in the epilogue of the very last book. The rest of it seems to be an endless examination of Martha's dissatisfaction and failed love life as history happens around her. An epic of the 20th century? Perhaps, but it's a very inward and feminine epic - let's be honest here, it's "women's fiction," and fine writing or not, it just didn't interest me. There's no plot. I don't mean "No action scenes or mysteries or thrills," I mean no plot.
Lessing is a great writer. Her writing, even in this early novel, is obviously the sort of writing a Nobel Prize-winning writer writes. Subtexts of colonialism, antisemitism, racism, classism, sexism, are all boiling beneath the surface, along with Martha's sexuality.
But, it bored me. To death. I almost didn't finish it. I made myself, just to be fair, but I'm definitely not continuing the series (the next book is titled A Proper Marriage) and I'm going to be a lot more wary of any future Doris Lessing novels.
Verdict: A finely-crafted novel about a teenage girl discovering her ideals in conflict with the realities of colonial Africa in the early 20th century, this could have been interesting but it was not. Almost was a DNF. It's not a bad book... I just Did Not Care. Sorry, Doris Lessing, it's not you, it's me.
Also by Doris Lessing: My review of The Good Terrorist.
My complete list of book reviews.