Take the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing. Everybody reads (or pretends to read) her experimental masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, but few boast of cognizance of her stunning political novel, A Ripple From the Storm. There are even statistics of to prove this: at Goodreads, there are 11,983 ratings of The Golden Notebook, but only 397 ratings of A Ripple From the Storm.
The third novel in the Children of Violence series, A Ripple From the Storm, is a brilliant, layered study of the rise and fall of a small communist group. Here is a quick recap of the COV novels: the heroine, Martha Quest, is a true “child of violence” in that she is born after World War I, the daughter of a wounded shell-shocked veteran and a nurse. She comes of age at the beginning of World War II. The first four novels are set in Africa; the last in London, where Martha finally moves. Like Martha, Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia (called Zambesia in the novels) and then moved to London.
Lessing writes beautifully, but one doesn’t read her for style. In A Ripple From the Storm, Lessing brilliantly portrays Martha’s struggles to escape the deadening conformity and tenets of a provincial, racist, sexist society. Martha has traded in suburban marriage for independence in a rented room. She naively hopes the radical political meetings she attends will break down the “colour bar” and create world peace.
At the end of the second book, A Proper Marriage, Martha left her civil servant husband and their daughter Caroline to live on her own. (You can read my post on the second book A Proper Marriage, here.)
In A Ripple From the Storm, Martha works as a secretary to earn a living, is active in several leftist groups, and has no time to think. Her mother writes a letter “casting her off” but then proceeds to pester and criticize her as usual. Martha’s estranged husband, Douglas, makes sentimental scenes and threatens to cite her RAF boyfriend, William, in the divorce case. Ironically, Douglas was unfaithful first.
None of the suburban hysteria and hypocrisy affects Martha intensely, except the loss of her daughter. And Martha learns not to think of what she can do nothing about.
Most of the time she was very careful not to allow herself to think of Caroline. Once, missing Caroline, she had borrowed Jasmine’s car and driven several times up and down past the house, to watch the little girl playing in the garden with the nurse-girl. the sight had confused her, for she had not felt as unhappy as she had expected. She had continued to drive up and down past the house until she saw a female figure through a window and believed she recognized Elaine Talbot.
Martha pours her passion into politics, and Lessing brilliantly captures the mix of excitement and exhaustion: the intensity and dreariness, the analysis and self-criticism, and the daily meetings (usually more than one) at which there is much talk, little action. Martha types, does mailings, lectures, does social work in the “coloured” community, sells the communist newspaper, and never has time to sleep.
The political atmosphere of the small African town has become more liberal with the influx of British Air Force personnel. RAF and townspeople alike attend the meetings of “Save the Allies” and other political organizations. Temporarily, everyone loves the ally, Russia. A radical core of activists, including Martha , form a small communist study group, while remaining active in the other groups,. There are frequent clashes between Anton Hesse, an intellectual communist who is a refugee from Germany, and Jackie Cooper, a charismatic pilot who is often late and “undisciplined” but without whom there would be no group. Anton makes pompous statements like, “Yes, the development in this country accurately reflects the development in the Union of South Africa, and it is proof of the necessity for a Communist party.” Jackie makes jokes.
And then William, Martha’s boyfriend, is posted elsewhere, and Martha is alone.
Even when Lessing is writing about politics, it is her talent for interior monologue and analyzing Martha’s feelings that give us the feeling we are there.
…she was not so much lonely as self-divided. Her loneliness, the moments when she said to herself, ‘I am lonely,’ had a pleasurable pain: her old enemy, the dishonesty of nostalgia, was very close, and the ease with which she succumbed to it made her irritated with herself.
In her loneliness, Martha makes a terrible mistake. She marries Anton so he will not be interned in a camp or deported. Martha does a good deed, but it is a disaster. Once again she finds herself married to a man she doesn’t love. And he is terrible in bed, so it is worse.
Politics or marriage? What matters to Martha?
This can be read as a stand-alone novel. If you have ever been involved in a leftist political group, whether it be a food co-op or feminist consciousness raising group, you will very much admire Lessing’s pitch-perfect mimicry of political jargon, the insistence on criticism and self-criticism, and the characters’ idealism: Martha really does believe in her twenties that communism will save the world.
The story continues in the fourth novel, Landlocked.