Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 236 pages; 2002.
Having recently got over my fear of reading Doris Lessing, I decided to try another book by this Nobel Prize-winning author.
The Summer Before the Dark was first published in 1970. At the time it must have been a very contemporary novel, and perhaps a little controversial, because its central theme is the role of women in society. The main character, Kate Brown, is a domestic goddess who spends one summer rediscovering herself and her place in the world after some 20 years of marriage and motherhood.
It might sound like a relatively dull premise for a novel, but in Lessing’s hands the book sings with great storytelling, intellectual insight and drama. Kate Brown is no dull housewife: she’s a complex woman suffering what can be best described as empty-nest syndrome. Her grown up children are getting on with their lives and her husband is working in America for an extended period, leaving her to her own devices for a summer.
Good at languages — Italian, French and Portuguese — she accepts a temporary translator job at a conference in London for an organisation called Global Food. She does so well and enjoys the work so much, her stint is extended and she is promoted. Before she knows it she is one of the main organisers of another conference, this time in Istanbul, and it is here that she embarks on an illicit affair with a younger man and goes on a European road trip with him.
The affair, however, is disappointing, and stuck in rural Spain with a lover who has fallen ill, she returns to London alone. Here she holes up in a hotel — the family home has been rented out for the summer — only to become drastically ill herself. Lonely and depressed, Kate’s sanity begins to crumble and there are a few wobbly moments when she tries to make sense of who she is and why her life no longer holds a meaningful purpose.
It’s not until she takes a room in a house occupied by a much younger woman that Kate is able to confront her demons and find the courage to forge on with a new life in which her husband and children are no longer her sole focus.
The book is incredibly moving in places — you really get to feel Kate’s pain and anguish as she comes to terms with growing older. But it’s Lessing’s wry and insightful observations of a woman’s sexuality — and of its often unspoken importance to a woman’s sense of self — that this book comes into its own. There’s a very telling scene in which Kate goes to a restaurant, just prior to the lunch time rush, and finds that her age and her sex have rendered her invisible.
She sat by herself and waited for service. In front of her stood the unvarying British menu. At the other end of the room, a waitress was talking to a customer, an elderly man. She was in no hurry to come over. When she did come she did not look at Kate, but scribbled the order down hastily on a small pad, and went back to talk to the customer, before shouting the order through a hatch into the kitchen. It seemed a long time before the food came. Kate sat on, invisible, apparently, to the waitress and to the other customers: the place was filling now. She was shaking with impatient hunger, the need to cry. The feeling that no one could see her made her want to shout: ‘Look, I’m here, can’t you see me?’ She was not far off that state which in a small child is called a tantrum.
Later she realises that to receive attention, from both men and women alike, she must dress and groom herself appropriately, to put on her ‘Mrs Brown’ face. Other revelations quickly follow.
The Summer Before the Dark, had you not already guessed, isn’t exactly a cheery or pleasurable read, but it’s an enlightening one. As a reader not far off Mrs Brown’s age (she’s in her early 40s) but the product of a different time (I chose a career over children), the book presented me with many issues to cogitate on. I suspect it would make a rather good book group read, because it throws up so many topics for discussion, many of which are still relevant almost 40 years after it was written.