This book concludes the five-volume series, Children of Violence, a major literary achievement which has been nearly twenty years in the workblock.
The series as a whole develops the central character, Martha Quest, from birth in Southern Africa at the end of World War One, through an adolescence, youth and marriage shaped by the savageries of the Second World War. With The Four-Gated City Martha is in London as the Fifties begin. This volume then is set in post-war Britain, and with Martha is integrally part of the social history of the time - the Cold War, the Aldermaston Marches, Swinging London, the deepening of poverty and social anarchy; and the minuteness, the painful insight of Mrs Lessings treatment of her characters is, as always in her work, due to her vision of them as creations and embodiments of huge impersonal forces. The series virtually covers the twentieth-century: The Four-Gated City ends with the century in the grip of World War Three, a conclusion like space fiction. For Doris Lessing does not believe in our current mental habits which put "the novel", "the family novel", "space fiction", "journalism" and "autobiography" into separate compartments, and in this extraordinary novel, which is as unexpected as The Golden Notebook, she dissolves familiar categories.
This book is bound to create disquiet and controversy. For one thing, her view of recent politics is not everyones. And her view of the future is that it is the present: we are all hypnotised waiting for cataclysms that in fact we are living through now in the bloody end of an epoch. But this painful time is also creative: humanity is in the process of rapid evolution, we are mutating fast but cant see it - the chief characteristic of the race we belong to being an inability to see what is under its nose.
Relentlessly and acutely exposing facts and ideas which are often found too raw to face, Mrs Lessing takes on the medical profession, which she believes is destroying (recently through imprisonment, currently through the use of drugs) that part of humanity which is in fact most sensitive to evolution, those people we label as mentally sick or unbalanced: and, criticising the scientists who have created and perpetuate a climate in which "rationalism" has become a new God, she claims that everyone has "extra-sensory perception", in varying degrees, but has been brainwashed into suppressing it, and that schizophrenia is the name of our blindest contemporary prejudice.
No one can read this visionary, troubling, thoughtful book and remain unchanged by it.