The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing

Love defies time as genes slip the leash

Since 1999, Doris Lessing has published Mara and Dann (to my mind her best book ever), Ben, in the World, The Sweetest Dream, and now these four thought-provoking, vigorous short novels in one volume. The novels in The Grandmothers differ in style and setting, but strong themes braid them skilfully together: the pressure one generation exerts on another; the genetic dance between settled dynasties and outsiders.

The elegant, erotic title tale is set on the shores of an unnamed Anglophone continent. An elysian lunch party beside the beach for two blonde grandmothers, their sons and golden grandchildren, unfolds into a genuinely shocking tale of quasi-incestuous passion, which asserts the sexual dominion of older women even as they resolve to yield their lovers to younger, fertile strangers.

Victoria and the Staveneys is more naturalistic, set in London. A casual act of kindness interlocks the fate, and the genes, of a poor black girl with a rich white family. Once again, powerful grandparents cast a long shadow. The Reason for It comes from the opposite pole of Lessing's work, and is the most powerful and ambitious of these stories. The last surviving elder records the decline of a great city state whose morality and prosperity were rooted in its culture of storytelling, destroyed by its current leader. It is disturbing in echoes of our own decadence - brutal, violent, brainless songs have replaced good ones, craft skills have been forgotten, and the young are crude and ignorant, to the despair of their parents and grandparents.

A Love-Child follows its shy, lower-middle-class, literate hero, James, through the grim boredom of the Second World War to a posting in India, where the temporary hospitality of racy, good-looking expatriate women gives rise to the "love-child" of the title, who will never know the claustrophobic world of his English grandparents. Once again, the genes slip their leash.

In every story we find the bliss of desire and illusion, the self-enclosed glow of a love that makes "the hot blue air... exude great drops of something like a golden dew". The grandmothers are narcissistically in thrall to each other's handsome blond sons; Victoria is in love with the glossy world of the white Staveneys; the wise "Twelve" in The Reason for It choose shallow DeRod as their leader because they are blinded by his charm and good looks (Labour Party members please note).

Running counter to the dream of love, the inexorable flow of what happens in the world presses the characters towards painful understanding. Only James, at the end of A Love-Child, still believes that the one real kind of love is the solipsistic white heat of his affair with Daphne. These novels show us what fun romantic love is, and how sharply desire defines us. These are not morality tales, just an account of what happens, and why; our infinite capacity for self-delusion, by-blow of our drive for pleasure.

We go into the dark, Lessing tells us, but the shimmering texture of lived days in these bittersweet stories works against melancholy. The Grandmothers is a feast from life's long and crowded banqueting table, and the sparrow darts on through the sunlight above it.

Maggie Gee's 'The Flood' will be published in February

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