To Room Nineteen by Doris Lessing, 1963
The magic trick:
Letting the story of a woman’s growing unhappiness unspool very slowly so that the reader feels that growing unhappiness along with her
Today, Doris Lessing takes us into the world of desperate housewives. This story recalls Alice Munro’s “The Office” and Murakami’s “Sleep.” Truth be told, though, unhappy women trapped in unhappy marriages is a short story genre that far transcends one or two titles.
In “Sleep,” the protagonist decides she’d prefer staying up all night reading Anna Karenina to normal life; the lead in “The Office” seeks refuge in a, yes, office; then there’s the woman at the heart of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and you probably remember what happens in that one.
Susan in “Room Nineteen” falls somewhere in between those extremes. She wants something like Munro’s office, but her mental balance slides into something closer to the yellow wallpaper. The beauty of this story, writing wise, is its pace. It is slow. Susan’s life follows all the expected points – fall in love, get married, quit your job, have kids. The surprise for her, I suppose, is that all this only seems to bring her agony.
But the fallout doesn’t settle in big shocks or movements. It’s subtle and the story is slow. The decline is gradual.
The reader is dragged into the abyss with Susan. It’s a grind, and, no doubt, we begin to feel hopeless for her too, even as nothing particularly dramatic has happened. And that’s quite a trick on Lessing’s part.
Their love for each other? Well, that was nearest it. If this wasn’t a centre, what was? Yes, it was around this point, their love, that the whole extraordinary structure revolved. For extraordinary it certainly was. Both Susan and Matthew had moments of thinking so, of looking in secret disbelief at this thing they had created: marriage, four children, big house, garden, charwoman, friends, cars… and this thing, this entity, all of it had come into existence, been blown into being out of nowhere, because Susan loved Matthew and Matthew loved Susan. Extraordinary. So that was the central point, the wellspring.
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