Book Review: The Temptation of Jack Orkney: Collected Stories Volume 2 by Doris Lessing

The Temptation of Jack Orkney by Doris Lessing“Her name was Hetty, and she was born with the twentieth century.  She was seventy when she died of cold and malnutrition…. Her four children were now middle-aged, with grown children.  Of these descendants one daughter sent her Christmas cards, but otherwise she did not exist for them.  For they were all respectable people, with homes and good jobs and cars.  And Hetty was not respectable.  She had always been a bit strange, these people said, when mentioning her at all.”

‘An Old Woman and her Cat’

I always find it’s more of a challenge to discuss short story collections than a full novel.  There’s a lot more to talk about, but inevitably you’ll like some more than others – do you rate a collection on its average content or on the merits of your favourite, or even least favourite?

There were a few stories in this collection, such as ‘An Old Woman and her Cat’ and ‘The Thoughts of a Near-Human’, which I loved and which touched me.  ‘An Old Woman and her Cat’ is, in essence, about the homelessness and loneliness of an old lady abandoned by society.  ‘The Thoughts of a Near-Human’ is narrated by a Yeti-like creature who is fascinated by the human inhabitants of a remote village and attempts to make contact with them, with tragic consequences.  Both stories appealed to me because they delve deep into an exploration of human nature and society’s pack-like rejection of the abnormal.

The subject matter of the stories is mostly gritty realism and/or everyday sights and sounds, yet Lessing concentrates on making the familiar seem unfamiliar and hints at the wildness (and sometimes madness) within.  Many different themes and imagery are re-examined over and over in a variety of ways: nature, ageing, sex, spinsterhood and religion to name just a few.  Like the writing itself, these themes are all very neat and tidy and ‘proper’ on the surface.  She often describes parks and gardens, for example: respectable areas of nature controlled by man, as in ‘A Year in Regent’s Park’ or ‘The Other Garden’.  But read on and there are wild, hidden areas which cannot be tamed, birds which take possession of the park in the early morning hours, and trees shedding their autumn leaves, or their “heaps of treasure”, without warning, as if they could keep them a secret from human observers.

Lessing probes her protagonists’ minds constantly for reasons and motivations, and even her characters can’t seem to help psychoanalysing themselves and others around them.  This philosophising can seem a little indulgent at times, even self-destructive, but perhaps this is deliberate.  This certainly seems to be true in ‘The Temptation of Jack Orkney’ which is about an atheist tempted by the comforts of religion when his elderly father dies.  Caught up in his grief, Jack cannot seem to conquer a feeling of hypocrisy and revulsion at the behaviour of his family, his friends, and himself.  He exhausts himself until he begins to accept a balance between the “face of the sceptical world” and “another” world: a spiritual something, if not exactly orthodox religion, “which no conscious decision of his could stop him exploring”.

Lessing’s writing is very tight and controlled; her words exude a confidence in her own ability, though not in a smug, pretentious way.  She is a good writer and she has an awareness of her gift, which means that you never get a sense of someone trying too hard to be clever: she just is.

Unfortunately, this occasionally translated into stories with interesting plots and settings, but were a little too clinically analytical for me to truly say I enjoyed.  ‘Dialogue’ was one of these: this story is an investigation into mental illness and the effect it can have on those close to the sufferer.  The actual idea behind this was cleverly explored, but I just couldn’t warm to either of the main characters, which prevented me from fully engaging with the story.

All in all, I had a mixed bag of responses to this collection.  There wasn’t a single story which I disliked, and almost all of them made an impression on me, so overall I’d recommend this book, particular to “literary” readers – readers who love a quietly intellectual story with sharp writing over an emotional rollercoaster designed to appeal to ‘the masses’.  You know who you are.

I also have to squeeze in a recommendation of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, in which the narrator reflects on her life from a variety of angles (her writing life, her political views, her emotional life and everyday events), with each train of thought recorded in a different notebook.  It’s not for the faint-hearted – at nearly 600 pages this introspective search for one woman’s identity requires a lot of concentration and some persistence – but it’s so well written, and it honestly made me stop and think about the multiple perspectives from which we view our world.  It’s one that I intend to return to more than once in years to come.


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