Wednesday, September 5, 2007

REVIEW: The Cleft, by Doris Lessing

The Cleft, by Doris Lessing.  Published August 2007 by HarperCollins. Click on the cover to buy. I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

The Cleft is the new novel by renowned British writer Doris Lessing, author of contemporary classics like The Golden Notebook and Memoirs of a Survivor. This book is the fictional history of a place called the Cleft, a fictional deep cavern that served as the center of a small ancient society composed entirely of women. These women, the Clefts, were the first humans. They reproduced asexually and bore only daughters. But then a new kind of child is born, with unfamiliar appendages; at first, these are called "monsters" and are shunned and mutilated. Eventually the Monsters, or boys ("squirts," as they come to be called), aided by giant eagles, form a separate village and as time goes on the two societies move closer together. This "history" is told by a nameless Roman senator who also interjects with stories about his own marriage and family, since although the story is ostensibly about the history of the place the theme is the relations between men and women. Parallels are drawn between his wife and the Clefts, between his children's development and that of the youngsters of the long-ago time he's recounting.

I'll admit I'm not very familiar with her works (although I'm working to change that as we speak) and I found the book a little tough going at first. It reminded me a little of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, especially that book's coda or epilogue. After a while though I couldn't quite figure out where it was going, and I found the tone to be remote and abstract, and the characters to be almost indistinct. Apart from the narrator and his family, who occupy a very small part of the narrative, there are no more than five distinct characters and they are not terribly well-formed and seem to serve as representatives for entire races and generations of people.

However, when I discussed the book with a friend who is very familiar with the content and tone of Roman histories (that is, histories written during Roman times) I was assured that these very characteristics- abstractness, representative characters and large amounts of speculation- were actually quite typical of the kinds of histories that Romans wrote and that Lessing therefore was doing a very good job of realistically portraying how a Roman would have told this story.

My friend also warned me that abrupt endings were also typical of Roman histories and to be prepared. Good thing, too, because that's exactly what happened.

When it was over I could see better the narrative's arc and understood the overall structure a little better. But did I like the book? Well, yes and no. Lessing is a demanding writer of challenging fiction; to me The Cleft wasn't the kind of book I like, it's the kind of book I admire. I admired it, and I would recommend The Cleft to anyone who is looking for just that kind of reading experience.

See also: Doris Lessing on Wikipedia.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

No comments: