Friday, 15 August 2014

A Woman on a Roof by Doris Lessing, 1963

A review of a short story by the British novelist for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.

There was a fine view across several acres of roofs. Not far off a man sat in a deckchair reading the newspapers. Then they saw her, between chimneys, about fifty yards away. She lay face down on a brown blanket. They could see the top part of her: black hair, a flushed solid back, arms spread out.

© Wikimedia Commons
It’s not everyday that I read a short story that can be interpreted in different ways by different readers. A Woman on a Roof (Encounter, March 1963) is one of those stories that leaves you nowhere long after you have read it, talked about it, and argued over it. But it won’t make this story any less tantalisingly charming.

The premise is simple: three men are working on the roof of a building on a hot June day in London when they see a woman sunbathing on the roof of an adjoining building. She is almost naked.

Harry, the oldest, is forty-five years old. Stanley is young and newly married. And Tom is only seventeen.

As the three men sweat it out on the roof and at times in the basement of the block of flats, to escape the wretched heat, they can’t take their thoughts away from the nearly naked woman. At least Stanley and Tom can’t.

The characters

Harry is mature and circumspect and with a son as old as Tom, he prefers to look the other way and do his work. He humours the other two, especially Stanley.

Stanley is the loudest and most affected. He sounds annoyed with the bare woman but you know he is annoyed with himself. He tells the others that she is a bitch for no apparent reason other than that she is tormenting him. He’d rather she wasn't lying lying around naked like that, for him to see and agonise over. He is married and there is not a damn thing he can do about it. He knows it and you know it.

Young Tom is quiet and reserved even though he joins Stanley in whistling and shouting loudly across the roofs. He dreams of the naked woman every night. He thinks she is lovely and that she belongs to him. Tom also happens to see more than Harry and Stanley. He likes to think of it as a secret between him and the woman.

Tom's report was that she hadn't moved, but it was a lie. He wanted to keep what he had seen to himself: he had caught her in the act of rolling down the little red pants over her hips, till they were no more than a small triangle. She was on her back, fully visible, glistening with oil.

Final word
In the story the mysterious woman appears oblivious to the presence of the three men and their whistles and catcalls from across the roofs. Of course, she knows they can see her but she doesn't give a hoot. She sleeps half-naked on her roof through a whole week. This angers Stanley even more.

Doris Lessing, the British novelist, playwright and poet who passed away in November 2013, has crafted a very clever story. She plays around with human emotions subtly, not just those of the workmen but also those of the readers. Through the naked woman, she brings out the best and the worst in the three men, particularly Stanley and Tom, who first love her and then hate her for what she is doing to them when, in effect, she isn't doing anything at all.

Lessing holds back more than she gives and still doesn't leave the reader unfulfilled. Her prose is simple and lucid. She doesn't beat around the bush. She comes straight to the point. I liked A Woman on a Roof mainly on account of the story, which is a real tease, and the brevity of words. I'd never read anything by Doris Lessing before. This was a good introduction to her writing.

12 comments:

  1. Very interesting idea for a story.

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    1. Charles, it surely is, though I get the feeling that I have read a similar plot elsewhere.

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  2. I read only one book by this author and found it tough going. Maybe I should read something like this one.

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    1. Mystica, I'm keen to read some of her full-length novels except I don't know where to begin. She wrote more than a dozen of them.

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  3. It sounds like a very interesting premise for a story. I don't usually like short stories but I might like this one.

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    1. Tracy, it is an interesting premise for a story and Lessing has handled it very. I mean, she doesn't go overboard or overdramatise. She just tells the story, you picture it in your mind.

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  4. One of the greats of 20th century writing and thinking - great choice Prashant. My mum once got a postcard from her after writing a fan letter.

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    1. Sergio, thank you. I missed Lessing all these years but I'm glad I finally read something by her and it won't be the last. The postcard your mum received is worth its weight in gold.

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  5. Lessing's novel THE GRASS IS SINGING might make some connections for you with this story, which touches so tantalizingly on gender and the dynamics of sexual desire. I've never read her later speculative fiction and wonder what you and Charles would make of it.

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    1. Ron, this one story has got me sufficiently interested in reading full-length novels by Doris Lessing. I'll keep THE GRASS IS SINGING in mind when I look up her books.

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  6. Interesting story, I think I would enjoy it. She's an author I have never read.

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    1. Col, thank you. I'm sure you'll enjoy her short stories. She impressed me.

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