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on 27 November 2009
I often wait a day or two before writing a review. I find that my appreciation of a work often changes on reflection, sometimes magnifying the experience, sometimes diminishing it. In the case of Doris Lessing's The Cleft, a little distance has considerably enhanced the initial impression, which was less than favourable.

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.
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on 9 May 2008
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, despite saying her next book will be her last.
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on 13 January 2008
This was the first book I've read from the author. It was a bad choice. The idea of the book was really promising, an ancient community where only women exist and the effects of male children being born. Although there were some interesting insight of male and female differences, the story was boring, unoriginal, depressing. The narrative story which was going on in between was completely unnecessary.

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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on 9 February 2012
I finished reading The Cleft a few days ago. It is written from the point of view of a male Roman historian narrator. It commences with a mythological society from an unidentified time where all people are female (of course the concept of male and female does not exist at that time). These people are known as Clefts, after the mountain/volcano close to the caves where the people reside.

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.
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on 28 February 2009
The women (the clefts), living in their timeless coastal community, were getting along happily without men. They were able to breed without men and gave birth only to women until one day a baby was born with a squirt... then another... As these were the first mutants (baby boys) these women had produced, maternal instincts had not evolved; to say the least. What happens to these boys, how the women deal with these newcomers, how some of the boys survive into manhood and ultimately develop relationships with the women is fascinating.

Opening with a line from Robert Graves (Man does, woman is), the story of the Clefts and their home (The Cleft) is retold by a Roman Senator; a benevolent and convincing narrator. There is a distinct atmosphere; stark, primal, foreboding. It's a time of change. It's a great mythic story.

It's interesting to see how the women's attitude towards themselves and towards the men changes throughout the book. Before the appearance of the squirts, the women are self-sufficient but, when the first group of men has grown up, the women become restless and angry when ignored (by the male group) and their emotional setting shifts to: 'What about us?'. The Clefts (women) shift from self sufficiency to 'What about us?'.

Perhaps, after a few painfully abortive experiments in male childcare, some of the men genuinely owe their upbringing to the women and the women have a right to their 'What about us?'... but the women's self reliance and confidence seems diminished and they have been stretched by having to share their lives with the new sex.

The behavior of the new men seems strange, selfish, primitive and often irresponsible (not much has changed there then), although, the men are quite selflessly, possibly pointlessly, brave and adventurous.

But, women remain the superior and more sensible sex. And, Doris Lessing begins the book with some interesting observations about women and even though I'm a squirt, I can't refute them. She writes that men 'lack the solidity of women, who seem to have been endowed with a natural harmony with the ways of the world'. Although male, I can only agree with her. The prophet Mohammed said that 'Women are the twin halves of men'. Perhaps, as one twin often lacks the qualities of the other, the sexes each have their own qualities which will either compliment or hinder each other. As Robert Graves wrote: 'Man does, Woman is' (two separate qualities, doing and being). And when the qualities clash each sex as Robert Graves wrote: 'cuts across the other's bows, shame and fury to arouse.' But if there is an older, more rounded, balanced sex, few would disagree with Doris Lessing's observations and The Cleft amplifies them.

I liked the mythical interplay and sensitivity of the animal kingdom and nature; the eagles that rescue the first baby boys, the power of the moon, the sanctity of the Cleft. It reminds me of the loss our culture has suffered through its almost deliberate lack of respect for stories and myths. And not just the loss of myths and stories, but the loss of the ability and willingness to begin to understand them. Karen Armstrong has written bravely about this loss in the last part of her excellent book 'A Short History of Myth'.

The Cleft is a great book, I'm looking forward to reading it again and I would recommend it to anyone who loves good stories and good storytelling.

I wonder if this book, in part, is an unconscious reaction within and by Lessing to the fact that children need fathers.
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on 7 April 2014
This is a mixture of a book. As ever with Doris Lessing, it is well written. But it is a mixture of narrative, fable and Ms Lessing's exploration of feminism or the female being. As such it does not work on any level, although I found the role of the narrator (masculine and anonymous Roman historian) engaging, the story of the clefts was curiously unsatisfying. Other than it states the obvious-unlike the basic tenant of Christianity, women would have had to come first to give birth and the more modern truism, it is likely women could exist quite comfortably without men. The fable appears to delineate the differences between specific male and female genders-no sign of anything in-between or any sexual differentials. And as such falls over for me. It reads as a writer's (and in this case the fine intelligence of Ms Lessing) meditation or gestating an idea which may have run a deeper course in a longer novel.
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on 13 January 2008
This was the first book I've read from the author. It was a bad choice. The idea of the book was really promising, an ancient community where only women exist and the effects of male children being born. Although there were some interesting insight of male and female differences, the story was boring, unoriginal, depressing. The narrative story which was going on in between was completely unnecessary.

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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on 7 February 2008
This is the worst book I have read for a very long time. Given the author, I hoped it would satisfy my interest in feminism, but it does nothing of the sort. The story is very feeble indeed and even the English is flat and uninteresting and here and there somewhat bizarre. The story is narrated by a Roman patrician of Nero's time who, on observing women surrounded by white dust, compares them with women smoking, centuries before the habit appeared. This is just one example of lack of care from such a distinguished author.
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on 12 March 2011
The CleftThank you for the reviews on this item, I followed a reviewer (sorry can't remember who) from another book review, and bought this book for the first time ever on the strength of a reviewers comments only. Never heard of Doris Lessing, I found it very thought provoking and will definitely be checking out her other books. Oral mythology at its simplest and best - profound but not perfect, but what is
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on 19 April 2009
A very disappointing introduction to Doris Lessing's books. With her reputation I expected more but this was like a half-finished essay that was never really meant for publication. The initial idea seemed worth exploring, but very soon after starting to read it I just wanted the book to end, and only bothered finishing it because I was reading it for a book club discussion.
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