The Diary of a Good Neighbour by Jane Somers

janesomerscoverJane Somers is a pseudonym. Doris Lessing had evidently tired of being Doris Lessing by the early 1980s so decided to tackle this bit of kitchen sink drama under a nom de plume. Pretty much everyone, apart from her original publisher, was taken in. Doris obviously enjoyed it. Clever literary folk were perhaps less amused. Anyway, the middle-aged Janna – she’s in fashion publishing and, like the name, is faintly ridiculous – Somers meets what she takes to be a witch in a chemist and, for no obvious reason, decides to help this ancient old crone. The early exchanges are hard work. Lessing/Somers details all the conversational misunderstandings – all of them – all the she saids, I felt, she said, I didn’t understand what she meant, I asked her to repeat, she got angry, I asked, she didn’t hear, she ignored me…it goes on and on and on…It takes a bit of swallowing: like Virginia Woolf – referenced once in the novel – she doesn’t believe in letting the reader drift along for the ride. And yet somehow all the artificiality creates a kind of believability and as their relationship eases, the prose opens out, the easy, fond, comfortable spaces between them become apparent. I don’t really want to say ‘masterful’ but, well, it is. Two scenes with Maudie’s estranged family, a lunch and the funeral, both taking place over a page or two, are particularly sharp. Other, lesser authors – oh, I don’t know, let’s pick someone at random, don’t want to name names, comparisons are invidious and all that sort of thing, oh alright, Jonathan Franzen – so other, lesser authors like Jonathan Franzen would make these the emotional centrepieces of their novel and bang out a couple of longish chapters on each. Lessing doesn’t have to. At the funeral Jane is dismissed by the family as, in effect, the dead woman’s hired help. ‘And now I suppose you’ll get yourself another little job, will you,’ one of them says to her. Like much of the book, it’s quietly devastating. The idea that difficult old Maudie had a genuine friend is airbrushed immediately from their understanding. Yet we, like Janna, know that she did. Some book – Hollywood would probably want to add songs.


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