The latest by the prolific Lessing is a collection of four novellas that vary considerably in quality, with the best of them, "Victoria and the Staveneys" and "A Love Child," showing her at the top of her very impressive form. They are both at once intimately detailed yet infinitely expansive in their suggestions of a lost world only recoverable by a profoundly observant writer. In "Victoria" a young London black woman of charm and great fortitude survives and transcends the hardest of all assimilations: acceptance by a free-thinking, liberal white family. The shades of racial and social subtext here are evoked with a sure hand that even a Zadie Smith could envy. "A Love Child" powerfully evokes a strange aspect of a familiar time: a terrible ocean voyage, during WWII, by a hapless British regiment sent to the Far East to help protect India against Japanese invasion. James Reid, a young conscript, puts ashore in South Africa in the course of this nightmare voyage and embarks on a liaison that transforms the rest of his life. The detail and almost hallucinatory power with which an era and an ethos are recaptured are Lessing at her best, comparable to Ian McEwan's amazing war scenes in Atonement . The other stories are on a much lower level. The title story is about an odd relationship between two older women and each other's young sons; it is an original idea, but curiously lame in the telling. And "The Reason for It" is one of those peculiar tales in the SF/fantasy genre that Lessing does well enough, but that never seem to be quite her métier. Still, the two prize pieces here are well worth the price. (Jan. 9)
Forecast: Fans of the writer will be amply rewarded by the better half of the book, her best work in some years.