The Summer Before the Dark

A lackluster title for Doris Lessing’s magnificent book—better options would have been The Journey or An Awakening. It’s a tremendous book tackling the big questions of identity and aging, seen from the perspective of that forgotten character, an older woman.

Kate Brown is a mid-forties woman with husband and four grown children on the precipice of discovery about herself, something that has been sublimated for decades as she cared for her family. She’s given the chance to help an acquaintance of her husband’s by providing emergency Portuguese translation services to a global committee on food that is meeting in London. From there she takes on a summer job for an exorbitant salary and begins to change as she lives on her own in Turkey, taking up a younger lover briefly in Spain, and then recovering from illness hidden away in a stranger’s (Maureen’s) flat in London. The illness is striking—she loses a lot of weight, her clothes no longer fit, her hair starts to grow out of its red dye and her face becomes haggard. Throughout the summer she’s experimented in dribs and drabs with what it takes to disguise herself as an old woman (in order to be ignored) and then flit back into her “normal” self (adored by all).

Working for this Global Food committee, whenever she wants to sit alone and think, she must change her appearance:

It was really extraordinary! There she sat, Kate Brown, just as she always had been, her self, her mind, her awareness, watching the world from behind a façade only very slightly different from the one she had maintained since she was sixteen. It was a matter only of a bad posture, breasts allowed to droop, and a look of “Yes, if you have to” and people did not see her.

This transition is enhanced after her illness and she delights in dressing up in clothes that get her ignored and going out, then in clothes that get her noticed. She even discovers various facial expressions that she never allowed herself to use before:

Kate was now grimacing into the hand glass, trying on different expressions, like an actress—there were hundreds she had never thought of using! She had been limiting herself to a frightfully small range, most of them, of course, creditable to her, and pleasing, or non-abrasive to others; but what of what was going on inside her now, when she was ill, when she was seething and rebelling like an army of ants on a carcass?

The only shortcomings of the book are the usual decent into tangents that Lessing indulges in. The entire section of travel with her younger lover in Spain was dreadfully boring, enduring his illness and travels deeper into the interior. Lessing also insists on including dreams as a way to stitch the story together which I find annoying. Otherwise, a fabulous book detailing this forgotten segment of society—menopausal women!