The structure, the writing, and the vision of this novel are absolutely brilliant. At times, the complexity of these three components can make this a difficult novel and even a frustrating one. One section might be incredibly emotionally complex and even harrowing in some ways, gutting in its own right, and then the next might be dry or ironic or amusing.
The novel itself is chunked out into six different components. A frame narrative taking place in the present which is called here “Free Women,” which tells the story of Anna, Molly, and Marion. Anna and Molly are friends, in their 40s, and Marion is the second wife to Molly’s ex-husband Richard, with whom she has a son, Tommy. Tommy lives at both houses and has a close relationship with both his mother and his step-mother. This story is told as the present and involves the post-divorce relationship of Molly and Richard, while Anna, the novel’s protagonist and central writer/narrator looks on.
The other primary section is called “The Notebooks” and is divided up into the four notebooks Anna keeps–the black notebook catalogs her life as a writer, the red notebook catalogs her life involved with the British Communist Party, the yellow notebook is an artistic journal and collections of her fictional pieces, and the blue notebook acts as a personal diary. It’s more or less easy to keep them separate, though, they do blur into each other, not so much in their construction (the reader’s experience) but in terms of the writer’s experience (Anna cannot always keep the contents separate, and says as much as times).
The last component is the Golden Notebook, and I won’t tell you anything about that.
The novel follows Anna’s youth spent in Rhodesia, the various love affairs in and out of the Communist Party and then after she’s left, in Anna’s 30s, as well as the scraps of her fiction.
If it sounds like a lot, it is. But it’s also an incredibly brilliant novel. I recognized a lot about myself in the crass idealism of the party members as a 20 yo man, as well as a little too much in the various (and often petty, cruel, or small) men Anna was involved with later. (I very fortunately don’t recognize a lot of who I think I am now!) And I also felt so much familiarity with the experiences Anna has a writer, an intellectual, an activist, and a woman (and all the combinations therein) in her interactions with men in her life. So while it’s at times frustrating, it’s also very satisfying too. The attempts to fracture her mind and experiences into separate, distinct categories weighs on Anna and it weighs on the novel. Having to parcel out what we get into distinct chunks is an interesting reading experience that, if you’re a rule follower like I am, challenges the way I want to read novels at all.
It’s a likely candidate for the best book I will read this year, and one of those ones that will be one of the best I’ve ever read.