Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Cleft - Doris Lessing

If ever there was a writer who exemplified the desire to improve one’s craft and to explore new ways of working, new ways of expressing ideas, it is Doris Lessing. She takes ideas where many writers would not even think of going, and if they did, would not dare to go. Bold, always questioning and challenging, her books have always delighted and surprised me. The Nobel Prize was well deserved (if somewhat overdue) and accepted in true Lessing style.

The Cleft is no exception to any of the above. It is beautifully written; a fluent narrative that I found difficult to put down. I read it without once being conscious of reading – despite the changes between the story and the narrator and the interpolations. It seemed to slip directly into my consciousness, and there it haunted me.

The narrator is a Roman historian reconstructing a myth from fragments of documents that have come into his possession. The myth tells of the beginning of human society; how women who for generations uncounted have, by parthenogenesis, produced only female offspring suddenly find themselves giving birth to Monsters – children with tubes and lumps instead of clefts.

But this is no feminist utopia destabilised by the appearance of men. That would be the simplistic route. Instead, what unfolds is a complex fable in which we see humanity struggle to come to terms with its own nature; struggle to move forward and search for some accord between apparently disparate elements.

It could have been a turgid and lengthy book, full of portentous argument, but its mythical quality and the fluency of style elevate this work beyond its specific context. It is a brilliant insight into human nature; it is clearly written by someone at the height of their powers as a writer and as a storyteller (and those don’t, sadly, always go together); and it shows the promise of new directions of work. One can but hope that Doris Lessing has more to offer us.