Doris Lessing is an author who’s always intimidated me, simply by virtue of having won the Nobel Prize and thereby, obviously, being a Great Name. I’ve been shilly-shallying over The Golden Notebook for the past few years, so when I stumbled across this curious book in a charity shop, I thought it could be an interesting way in. And, oh, it’s a very odd thing: part fantasy, part fable, part allegory. It focuses on the Clefts: a primitive society of parthenogenic women who only ever give birth to female children. And then, one day, a monstrous creature is born with horribly deformed genitals. The Clefts expose it, as they do all damaged infants, but then more of these Monsters are born and, before long, the Clefts find themselves struggling against the rise of a new population, who are so similar to them and yet so horrifyingly, incomprehensibly different: men.
The Clefts’ early efforts to kill off their mutant infants are frustrated by the (useful, if somewhat implausible) interference of a group of giant eagles, which rescue the exposed boy-children. Within a few years, a rival settlement has sprung up not far from the Clefts’ cliffside caves. Here the Monsters, or the Squirts as they’re increasingly known, cobble together their own society, but as the new generation of each ‘tribe’ grows to adulthood, they begin to feel a strange fascination about each other – and soon parthenogenesis has a rival form of reproduction. As we follow this society, we see the gradual shifting of balance – the Clefts originally having the upper hand; then a form of equality; and finally a change in favour of the Squirts, who begin to see the Clefts merely as baby-making machines. To make matters more complex, the whole story is presented as a series of found documents, preserved in secret and carefully reconstructed by a nameless Roman historian who occasionally pops in to tell us about his own life.
Yes, it’s peculiar. I can see what Lessing is trying to do – taking the defining features of the ways that women and men have interacted over the last few millennia, and refining that epochal story of matriarchy and patriarchy into a microcosm. But how successful is it? She touches on interesting points about the formation of religion around natural features, and the creation of history. She looks at the transmission of oral traditions through the ages with relatively little change – although these might present a radically different story to that offered by the memories of the ‘others’ in any given situation. She looks at how gender roles are imposed rather than born, and shows how the Clefts are gradually elbowed into particular roles. But is all this as new and challenging as it would once have been? One of the weaknesses, I felt, was that Lessing’s Clefts and Squirts end up embodying gender roles of a rather hackneyed 1950s type – the women nag, clean and pester; the men are irresponsible, overgrown children who run away from anything to do with tending babies. It feels a bit lazy and unadventurous. But perhaps Lessing is deliberately doing that because this is meant to be over-simplified: it has that quality of a fable, as I said earlier, and fables have archetypes. But did a fable like this really have anything new to say in 2007, when it was published? It could just as easily have been published in 1970, when it would have had something fresh and quirky to say.
I was interested to see that the novel has been greeted with a fair amount of bafflement on review sites like LibraryThing. Once people get away from the aura of the author’s name, they don’t seem terribly keen on the story. And I admit it’s odd. I found it difficult to place, but I’m inclined to think that, if you’re an 88-year-old Noble Prizewinner, you can probably do whatever you damn well want with genre conventions. There was something of Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness in it, and a soupcon of Golding’s The Inheritors, and some of that mythic quality you find in Mary Renault when she’s writing about the ancient mother-goddess myths that Theseus and his ilk come along and spoil. But The Cleft doesn’t live up to any of these. It shifts between the seriousness of ancient saga, and comic asides about the battle of the sexes, and doesn’t really plant its standard anywhere for long enough to take root. Hmm. I’m not expressing myself all that well. What I think I’m trying to say is that Lessing deals with quite a lot of very serious issues in a generally rather playful manner and sometimes that feels a bit odd. You see, that’s the second time I’ve used the word ‘odd’ about it. It must be true…
So there we go. I am baffled, but not put off by any means. And I’m rather excited to have discovered that Lessing has also written a fair amount of science fiction. She has written so much, and has ranged across so many different genres, that I’m going to have to investigate more of her work. It just so happens that I’ve started with, perhaps, one of her less brilliant novels. To call it a ‘dud’, as some reviewers have, is a bit unfair (though I did find it hard not to cringe at the use of Clefts and Squirts as names: I felt as if I were five years old and back in the playground). But I’m making these judgements without knowing the rest of her work. What do you all think? Which of her novels would be a good follow up, and convince me of the scintillating wisdom that she undoubtedly had?
Oh, and I think it must be an eagle on the cover. I assumed it was a raven and then spent most of the book feeling rather confused about why it was there.