It took me three months to read ‘The Diaries of Jane Somers’, my first Doris Lessing ever.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it is not the kind of read that you ‘enjoy’. But it definitely had an impact….like a series of punches to the stomach. I found myself crumpling into tears and even putting down the book to sob for a little bit at times.

In part one, the book is an up close and personal look at aging and old age, and all the infirmities and neuroses that go with it. It is about how the old cope. It is about compassion, without the sap and the sugar-coating, written in the first person by the protagonist, Jane, a successful and attractive magazine editor. Her vitality and strength stands in sharp contrast to the vulnerability of 90 year old Maudie Fowler, the woman whose fury is what holds her together, the fury that courses through her veins and keeps her alive. Jane encounters her in a grocery shop and is drawn to being her ‘friend’, going over to her poor filthy home to ‘visit’ and made that a pretext to look after her as much as she could, talk to her, listen to her, until Jane becomes the only thing Maudie looks forward to in her day.

There is a particular passage in the book that really struck me (there have been several really good ones) and it is this:

‘I am sitting here in my dressing gown by the electric fire. I should clean out this flat. I should really wash my hair.

I am thinking of how Maudie Fowler one day could not trouble herself to clean out her front room, because there was so much junk in it, and then she left it and left it; going in sometimes, thinking, well, it’s not so bad. Meanwhile she was keeping the back room and the kitchen spotless. Even now she does her own chimney once a week, and then scrubs the grate, brushes up the dust and cinders—though less and less thoroughly. She wasn’t feeling well, and didn’t bother, once, twice—-and then her room was not really cleaned, only the floor in the middle of the room sometimes, and she learned not to look around the edges or under the bed. Her kitchen was last. She scrubbed it and washed shelves, but then things began to slide. But through it all she washed herself, standing at the kitchen table, heating water in the kettles. And she kept her hair clean. She went sometimes to the public bath-houses, for she had told me she liked going there. Then she left longer and longer between washing her hair……and then she did not wash her clothes, only took out the cleanest ones there were, putting them back grubby, till they were the cleanest; and so it went on. And at last, she was upright in her thick shell of black, her knickers not entirely clean, but not so bad, her neck dirty, but she did not think about it, her scalp unwashed. When they took her to hospital, they washed her all over and washed her hair too. She sometimes thought humorously, when they cart me off back to hospital, I’ll get another proper wash! But she, Maudie Fowler ,was still there, alert, very much all there, on guard inside that old witch’s appearance. She is still there, and everything has collapsed around her, it’s too difficult, too much.

And I, Janna, am sitting here, in my clean, scented dressing gown, just out of my bath.’

In part two, Jane falls unexpectedly in love for what seems like the first time. She is over fifty years old now, still attractive, but no longer young. Love brings her joy and anguish in equal measure, and life throws her curve-balls in the form of some unlikely antagonists, who seem to mirror and echo her past, perhaps..? Middle-aged love is a different game altogether, especially when two established lives come together and must reconcile themselves to the baggage they bring…

Here’s another passage that I loved:

‘So vulnerable are we, so easy would it be to blow what we have apart. A word could do it; a word or a look does often rip aside our enjoyment in each other, leaving us fumbling, so that we both scramble with words or a movement to cover it all over, talking about something else, making up nonsense as we do, for the pleasure of words, words, the game of them; or we get up from where we sit in a pub or on a pavement and we walk rapidly away from where the danger was.


I can’t help drawing parallels between the helplessness of Maudie, and the difficulties my own parents face as they get older. There are so many things that my Mom can’t deal with because of a frozen shoulder and loss of feeling in her fingertips due to spondylytis, not to mention arthritis. She struggles with her clothes and has had accidents in the kitchen, burning herself terribly, overestimating the strength in her fingers while picking up a pan full of scalding hot tea. My mom, who has created so many beautiful things with her capable hands…

And my father never goes anywhere without his cane, has accepted the loss of muscle mass in his legs, valiantly trying to counter it with exercise and more protein in his diet. My father, the weight-lifter, the boxer…the man who never thought twice before taking on arduous DIY jobs around the house, now relies increasingly on his Man Friday… and I so wish I could go over and take care of them all the time.


I’m glad I read ‘Diaries..’, though it had to beΒ in small doses, and I do recommend it very highly.Β It’s all very interesting and detailed, and beautifully, terribly realistic.

Nevertheless there came a time a few days ago when I decided I had to read the last 100 pages over two days and finish the damn thing so I could move on to another book that wasn’t quite so gut-wrenching.

Trust me then, to pick up a collection of short stories by Nadine Gordimer, the first of which was about an injured pigeon that can’t fly which gets badly mauled by a playful dog and has to be killed to put it out of its misery.


What about you? Ever read a book in spite of yourself?


  1. sax says:

    I’m lost for words. This is too close to home. I don’t think i will read the book. I don’t like to feel depressed. I live in the present and believe in strength and possibilities. Even if I try, I cannot and will not dwell on probabilities. But one thing I WILL do ,I’m going over to mum’s place ….
    A very interesting and stimulating though sad read .. keep it coming Mun…

    1. Mun says:

      It’s precisely because it’s so close to home that I want you to read it my dear! And if I know you, it won’t get you down πŸ™‚
      Plus there’s more to the picture than just aging and dying…it’s the way it has been written and the thought processes of the author that come through and are so fascinating and compelling. Enough to have made me want to read it from beginning to end.
      No regrets!

  2. Aziza says:

    Too close to home, haven”t read the book so what u”ve said here. Read the short stories loved them.
    Perhaps one day ……. love ur bubble dear.


    1. Mun says:

      Thank you AA !

  3. I have a hard time with books about death, at least when it’s the death of a beloved character. I don’t mind when the bad guys get bumped off, but when it’s someone I like, I don’t want death. My husband teases me because he will see me reading a book with tears streaming down my face. Same thing with movies – the nice person dies, I lose it. That’s why I like romantic comedies and thrillers – it’s rare for a nice person to die in those genres.

    1. Mun says:

      You should have seen me while I was reading ‘Deathly Hallows’ then! Couldn’t stop sobbing when Mad-Eye, Dobby and Hedwig die!

      1. Ana says:

        I know! Dobby’s death was the one that did it for me.

      2. satsumaart says:

        HEDWIG 😦 I didn’t mind Mad-Eye so much, I kind of knew he had it coming, but Hedwig and Dobby… 😦 😦 😦

        1. Munira says:

          Hedwig, Dobby and……Snape! 😦 😦 😦
          I cried buckets over Snape. Watched the last movie a few days after it arrived (belatedly) in Karachi and loved it! Left the cineplex thinking about Snape and couldn’t stop thinking about him for many days…! What a complex character he was. I think I cried the most for him 😦

          1. satsumaart says:

            Ah, Snape! JK Rowling wrote once that he was “a gift of a character.” Seriously. I had a dream once that we were in love… πŸ˜‰

        2. Munira says:

          I just read your Snape dream…..amazing.

  4. This is a thoughtful post, Munira. Ageing is something that “frightens” me too. Sorry to hear about your parents problems. It’s the loss of the ability to do the things that you once took for granted that is the hardest to bear, isn’t it? As for books I finished despite myself the only one I can think of at the moment is a book I read in my teens called “Mars” – written by a young man, translated from the German text, it was a prose diary he kept whilst dying of cancer. I did finish it – but never went back. It was very depressing but also very thought provoking.One thing has stayed with me all my life, though. At one point he says, “Today it’s raining. I wish I could see it raining next year.” I hate rainy days as much as the next but I never forgot this. Anyway, time for a smile I think. πŸ™‚

  5. Mun says:

    Yup, aging IS frightening, not just because we may lose the ability to do simple things (and even the desire) but also because we’re probably on our way to becoming less relevant…and lonely as a consequence. I suppose there’s nothing we can do but resign ourselves to the inevitable, provided we live long enough. I still can’t stand the idea of losing my motor skills. Nevertheless, smile we shall!! πŸ™‚
    p.s I love rainy days πŸ˜‰

  6. Karyn says:

    I was in tears for much of Deathly Hallows and yet find myself going back to it. I have not read anything by Doris Lessing but I think I will put it on my list.

    1. Mun says:

      You’re right Karyn…I found myself tearing up pretty much throughout the book too. Hopeless case!

      Let me know if you manage to get your hands on ‘Diaries..’….

  7. Such brilliant writing M! Thank you for this post. I want to read this, but now’s not the time probably, since I’ve just begun to claw my way out of the black hole that was my life. At the moment I need comfort reads…so I’m relying on old favorites starting with Christie πŸ™‚

    I read Twilight a while ago. Borrowed it from a friend’s teenager who must be one of the very very few girls not ready to kill themselves over Robert Pattinson πŸ˜‰ I am a massive Buffy fan and I wanted to check out whether all the brouhaha over this series was well deserved. Needless to say, it wasn’t (I’m rarely wrong :P)! Awful writing and characters…just an interminably long version of a bad M &B! Saw the movie on TV later to see whether redemption was on the cards – NO!

    1. Mun says:

      Harsha, my crazygoangirl, for you this book really would hit too close to home. Avoid it for now, I suppose. Though actually, it might help a little, in the sense you might not feel so alone in what you’re dealing with…..
      Comfort reads are great, and if I didn’t have such a huge pile of unread books I’d probably re-read my favourites too. Wonder when I’ll EVER get around to it? πŸ˜›

      The Twilight series is Crap with a capital C!! Funnily I enjoyed the first two movies though!! *runs and hides*

      Loving ‘The Vampire Diaries’ at the mo…..;) (MUCH better than Twilight, I assure you!)

      1. Oh well!! I forgive you πŸ˜› Watch Buffy if you get the chance and feel the urge…superb writing! And my favorite vampire in the world or is that underworld…James Masters as Spike πŸ˜€ To die for πŸ˜‰

  8. Ana says:

    Actually, the book that I had the hardest time reading was The Kite Runner. I had to put it aside for 2 months before I could take it up again and finish it. I find it so difficult to read about inhumanity, though I know it exists, but when it’s presented to you in a book with all its color and nuance and not simply in a news article, it is so much harder to bear. It is so hard to read about a young child being treated with such cruelty that he will never be the same for the rest of his life, and then, if that weren’t enough, the very same inhumanity happens to his child. I cried and cried.

    1. Mun says:

      I know EXACTLY what you mean Ana, very well said. The Kite Runner was gut-wrenching, though it got a bit too dramatic towards the end. You’re right, it’s difficult to read about inhumanity…and that is the reason why I’ve stayed away from ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’…I have a strong suspicion it’ll be one of those books that are hard to bear.

  9. I’m watching my mother lose her mind. At first she was in denial, but now at least a part of her admits or remembers? that she forgets, if that is possible. It is so strange and unhinging to see your strong, sure, laughing, solid mother morph into a trembling, confused thing. She was my best friend and now she just tags along. I know everything changes but I never realized that my mother would become my child. Thank you for posting this– it is good to know that others are experiencing the same thing.

    1. satsumaart says:

      One of the most painful books I’ve read in the last year was Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, about a Harvard professor who gets early-onset Alzheimer’s. It reminded me a little of the aging mother in Tim Farrington’s The Monk Upstairs (which is a sequel to Monk Downstairs, both wonderful). It’s so heartbreaking to read about illness and aging because it’s going on all around us and is, in most cases, so badly dealt with, because we don’t really have good resources.

      1. Munira says:

        Yeah. And as far as grandparents go, I regret not having spent enough time talking to them myself. Never knew my fathers parents, and my Nana (mom’s father) passed away 18 years ago. He was an amazing man too, once very wealthy but then there was a reversal of fortune as his focus shifted from his business to serving his community..
        My Nani (mom’s mother) passed away almost 10 years ago, I think. But I have vivid memories of her and still miss her, and regret all the opportunities I got that I didn’t take full advantage of….and then she was gone. I have a picture of my grandparents here, if you’d like a look….

        1. satsumaart says:

          What a lovely post and photos! So good to record these memories. It’s amazing how few of these stories most of us hear, growing up.

          1. Munira says:

            Thank you so much Lisa! It’s hard to keep up with the various blogs but I’m trying…..

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