Review of Landlocked by Doris Lessing

Landlocked is a frustrating novel. It’s about frustration and futility and transition. The previous novels in the Children of Violence series had Martha constantly involved. Martha was driven. She was wilful and energetic and stumbled from one crisis to next mostly convinced of her own righteousness. She puts “the cause” before herself, before her family and, because she’s capable and willing and, probably, because she comes from a good, middle class family, she proves a valuable asset to everyone.

But here we are now. The war is coming to an end. The propaganda coming out of Russia is getting thinner. And Martha and her friends are moving out of the virility of youth.

Lessing’s prose is always disconcertingly powerful. On the surface, she seems to tell you too much, but her narrative voice is that of her characters and they both over think and are unnervingly naive to their feelings and thoughts.

Martha hurtles from social place to social arrangement clearly unable to find pause to reflect. The fact it, at the outset of the novel, it takes 2 chapters to address the fact that her marriage is breaking down is key. She talks about seeing her life as a house where she tries to keep each room separate. She can manage one thing at a time but life is flooding her. As the narrative progresses there continue to be these stark gaps in the narrative. The spectre of her frail father, on his death bed, but hanging on beyond everyone’s tolerance haunts most of the novel, but we miss his death itself, it’s passed over, only referred to as an afterthought.

In many ways, Martha seems to embody the spirit of the age. A world moving too fast for its own good. A world in transition and unable to face its own horrors. And for Martha, always convinced that she was in some way at the centre of it all, her realisation is to discover the extent to which she is and always was only on the sidelines, playing a role without any real impact.

This is a coming of age novel in many ways, but in a deeply cynical way. Anton, whom Martha had been infatuated with, who impressed everyone with his experience and the sincerity of his convictions, quietly loses all his radical ideas, fitting easily into the role of model citizen as he tries to convince the authorities to grant his citizenship. But this, it appears, is and always was his true nature: he discovers how much more he enjoys the quiet comforts of conventional behaviour to the uncertainty of his earlier roles. No wonder he couldn’t simply accept that his marriage to Martha was anything more than one of convenience. And, equally, Martha and all her friends learn through habit and experience which of their roles and beliefs they can hold to, and which were products of their unfortunate naivety of youth.

If there’s any weakness in the novel, it’s one of Lessing’s own making. The novel is about being stuck, of frustrations and false starts and sweet but ultimately meaningless moments of bliss (that are seen as such even as they’re being grasped). As such, it is a deeply unsatisfactory novel. But such is the power of her prose. One never reads Lessing. You live Lessing novels and, in doing so, have Lessing pass judgement upon you. To feel dissatisfied with the story is to have experienced it. Our desire for meaning, for even a climax, are deliberately subverted. Nothing; not the plight of her father, her lover or her husband, provide the narrative with its sought for meaning or conclusion. Life continues.

In reading the previous books in the series, I found myself seeing Lessing writing an almost antithesis to Austen – Lessing’s characters find marriage easy – they flit between one marriage and the next, casting them aside like old dresses, always searching for some deeper truth to their lives, always finding that meaning out of reach. Landlocked’s conclusion moves Martha beyond marriage entirely, but her restless soul shows no sign of settling down. To England: considering how grounded in Rhodesia these stories had been, and how much Lessing seems to draw full circle with the themes in this one, it would have been fitting to have Martha’s final departure as one of conclusion and finality. But even without the Four Gated City, that isn’t the conclusion we or Martha is given.

Landlocked is a fascinating historical narrative mix depicting the events of the 40s from a perspective starkly differing from the conventional story. Quite apart from anything else, this sense of WWII from the distance, without the threat of the blitz, and the most pressing issue being what to do with all the troublesome soldiers in the local barracks, is revealing. And the continual commentary on the situation of the native inhabitants of Rhodesia, the racism, and the well intentioned but ill thought out attempts to assist from the “allies” makes for uncomfortable reading.

I would definitely recommend this novel, but as part of the sequence of the Children of Violence rather than as self contained book.

So read the series. It’s powerful and compelling and written by one of greats.