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The Cleft Paperback – 7 Jan 2008
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‘Lessing skilfully manipulates multiple perspectives…a bold, inventive and challenging book from a writer who continues to enlighten and astonish as she approaches her tenth decade.’ Independent
'A work of elegance, wit, humour and mystery. It may even be considered, one day, as one of her finest works…This is a deeply serious novel, but it's also humane, warm and witty…Doris Lessing, in her ninth decade, is writing fiction that is as hypnotic, perceptive and original as any wunderkind a quarter her age' Glasgow Herald
‘The author's reach continues to thrill…there's witchery in the Old She yet.’ Daily Telegraph
‘A narrative with the compelling stamp of Lessing's late tales.’ The Times
‘Doris Lessing writes movingly of the human desire for change…she conveys a powerful belief in the impermanence of any situation in which human beings find themselves and the paradoxically unchanging nature of human relations.’ Observer
‘Lessing's engaging tale is told with the simplicity of an aural history committed to memory.’ New Statesman
‘Her prose is pleasingly incantatory…the novel has a pleasing gravitational pull on a purely poetic level.’ Metro
‘Lessing writes, as ever, with such calm and assured authority…a fascinating, at times disturbing book; one can't imagine any other writer bringing it off.’ The Scotsman
'Lessing has always observed human behaviour with the dispassionate eye of a Martian naturalist…Her prose thrives on a bigness which comes from her imaginative origins on the Veld of her African childhood, and her rangy plots take vast, fast strides over the horizon, collapsing lifetimes like pocket telescopes …”The Cleft” is a return to…the Tempest-like condensation of themes that has always enlarged her work' Times Literary Supplement
About the Author
Doris Lessing is one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2007. Her first novel, 'The Grass is Singing', was published in 1950. Among her other celebrated novels are 'The Golden Notebook', 'The Fifth Child' and 'Memoirs of a Survivor'. She has also published two volumes of her autobiography, 'Under my Skin' and 'Walking in the Shade'. Doris Lessing died on 17 November 2013 at the age of 94.
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The Cleft is quite a short novel. It just seems long. The language isn't difficult, likewise neither are setting or plot. Not that there's much of either.
We begin with a society that's entirely female and where procreation just happens. When "monsters" appear, babies with ugly extra bits on the front, they are either killed or mutilated. Killing involves leaving the tiny bundles of flesh on a rock for eagles to take. But the cunning birds aren't always hungry.
A community of squirts - grown-up monsters - begins to thrive and the women find they have to interact. New activities are mutually invented and suddenly all is change. A new race or perhaps merely a new society develops via proto-parents, develops at least twice, in fact. Journeys are made. Promised lands reveal promise. New orders establish themselves.
Meanwhile, we realise that this creation myth is being related by a Roman gentleman who has his own domestic battle of the sexes. At first sight this extra layer of narrative seems redundant. Eventually an elemental force binds the myth to the narrator's present. The link is tenuous and as a plot device, its impact fails. It does, however, conceptually link the narrator with the related myth.
After all, Romans were themselves created, they believed, out of a myth where a pair of lads were nurtured by an animal. The military tradition (equals male) by which Rome prospered was founded on the social control of Sparta, not the demos of Athens. Sparta was probably the ultimate macho male society, where the old were revered and women were chattel, though they could own property. Doris Lessing at one point refers to Spartan youth being separated from their families at the age of seven to hone military and combat skills via camaraderie. Such an exile the monsters of The Cleft invent for themselves.
Galling at first reading and later informative were the repeated gender stereotypes that dominate Doris Lessing's narrative. The repeated use of these bludgeoning concepts had more than an air of artifice. Looking back, I now see that this actually enhanced what emerged as the book's overarching idea, which is our need for myth and the necessity of reducing it to the level of populist fairy tale.
The eagles who nurtured the monsters play god. The way we organise our society demands certain role models, while ceremony, often barbaric, such as genital mutilation, allies us to ideals and ideas we prefer not to question. In the end we have to explain elemental forces beyond our control and myth is our refuge.
Stick with The Cleft. It's a tortuous journey, but it is worth it in the end, an end whose only solace may only be found in myth.
Then, the first Monster (male baby) is born. Others begin to follow. Initially the Clefts think the babies are deformed and mutilate them, or leave them on the Killing Rock for the Eagles to pick off. However, some survive and form separate, male communities. Eventually, it becomes apparent that people can now only reproduce with both males and females.
This book took me a while to get into, due to the style of the narration, but the more I read the more I enjoyed it and the quicker I found myself turning the pages. This novel is multi-faceted - it explores not only gender, but the subjective nature of history, and how people develop and are shaped by their environment. It is not the sort of book that gives you answers, and at times can be uncomfortable to read.
Throughout the book's fictional narrator intervenes with his interpretation on his events, or his thoughts on the sources of his research. He also tries to make sense of what happened in those pre-historic times, by looking at events and relationships in his own life.
Lessing's language throughout is sparse, but some words and phrases are repeated several times over the course of a few pages. This gives the reader an impression of the narrator mulling things over in his mind, but I think Lessing uses this trick a bit too often. In addition, the Clefts do not have much concept of time and this is reflected in the style of writing the book, ie, it does not have the 'rhythm' other books have and there are no neatly divided chapters. This means it is better read over a short space of time, rather than dipped in and out of over the course of a daily commute (unless your commute is quite long and you can get a seat).
The Cleft is ultimately a rewarding read, and as my fellow reviewer states it is the sort of book that makes one reflect after reading it. However, to get the most out of it, read it over the course of a couple of weekends or on holiday.
Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2007 and came across as a very interesting person in the interview, which was shown after the award winner was announced. I'm hoping to read some of her other books, which are highly acclaimed, but this was a very unfortunate introduction to her work.
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