Every now and then you come across a book that’s quite unlike anything you have ever read before. I had that not too long ago with The Sound and the Fury, but that truly pales in comparison with what Doris Lessing did with The Golden Notebook. This is one of those books that works on so many levels and, in many ways, is so clever.
At the centre of the novel is writer Anna who, after the success of her first novel, has come down with an extreme bout of writer’s block. As an aid to this, and because she feels the need to compartmentalise everything about her, she keeps a number of colour-coded notebooks (which are essentially her journals). The idea therefore of The Golden Notebook is her trying to bring these disparate parts of herself back together… with the requisite amount of psychological shock that would occur because of this.
So, in reading this book, you are reading all four of these notebooks mixed in with Free Women which is a short novel that Anna has been able to write because of her bringing herself back together and ending her writer’s block. That premise alone is interesting, but let’s not forget when this was written.
This book is not only an interesting look into the fragmentation of the psyche, but also serves as an interesting time capsule of where feminism was in the 1960s – including men’s reaction to it, women who seem to resist the breaking of gender roles and how it can all be linked back to sex. The Golden Notebook also provides a look at the decline of communism in the UK – with Anna herself being a former communist (surprise, that’s the red notebook).
However, this book isn’t without its flaws. For one thing, this is quite homophobic in many places with Anna’s derisive comments about gay men being hard to read at times. She makes a few comments negatively about lesbianism, but it’s mainly men who receive her ire (maybe because, as a highly sexual being, homosexuality is just one thing she can’t understand).
Then there is the topic of race (dealt with in, you guessed it, the black notebook) which is done during the sections where Anna describes her time living in Africa. There are some ‘interesting’ overtones in this section (i.e. racist) where she is derisive of pretty much everyone involved. The whites that she is with are drunk, privileged, completely self-absorbed and regularly ridicule the citizens of the country they’re camped out in. The African inhabitants don’t get a whole lot of fleshing out, but she is very much against racial mixing.
Ultimately The Golden Notebook is interesting because it’s one of those works where the writer takes absolutely no prisoners. Then again, that’s the character she has created. It’s incredibly complex and one of those novels that really needs to be properly digested and thought about once finished. I just wish I knew someone who’s actually read this so I could talk with them about it!