From Doris Lessing, "one of the most important writers of the past hundred years" Times of London , comes a brilliant, darkly provocative alternative history of humankind's beginnings. In the last years of his life, a Roman senator retells the history of human creation and reveals the little-known story of the Clefts, an ancient community of women living in an Edenic coastal wilderness. The Clefts have neither need nor knowledge of men; childbirth is controlled through the cycles of the moon, and they bear only female children. But with the unheralded birth of a strange new child—a boy—the harmony of their community is suddenly thrown into jeopardy. In this fascinating and beguiling novel, Lessing confronts the themes that inspired much of her early writing: how men and women manage to live side by side in the world and how the troublesome particulars of gender affect every aspect of our existence.

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A Roman senator observes the confrontation between a male and female slave. The man is clumsy, the woman furious; the woman penitent, the man contemptuous. The man walks off, certain to return to her bed later, a scene that sums up the eternal battle of the sexes. The senator is studying material purporting to tell the story of our first ancestors, an all-female tribe called the Clefts. He fears that should his account be published, it would be derided. Doris Lessing has been canny enough to anticipate potential criticisms of her latest novel.

In a prefatory note, she reveals it was inspired by a scientific claim that "the basic and primal human stock was probably female, and that males came along later, as a kind of cosmic afterthought". So she portrays a group of near-amphibious women who have no need of men since they are impregnated by a fertile wind, or a wave, or the moon. It is, however, no feminist utopia, for the women behave brutally, mutilating male babies before placing them on a rock for eagles to devour.

The eagles turn out to be their allies, transporting the babies to the forest where they are suckled by does. The adult males understandably view the women with suspicion until one Cleft ventures into the enemy camp and the first fully human baby is born. As a result, tensions fester between the Ancient Shes, who cling to the old ways, and younger women, who favour relations with men.

With harmony finally established, the Squirts as the males are called explore the island, leaving the Clefts resentful and unfulfilled. Lessing's treatment of gender conflict is far more even-handed than the blurb, with its reference to "a mythical society free from sexual intrigue The Clefts are more devious than Squirts, as well as less inventive, adventurous and visionary. The Cleft is neither a conventional nor an easy novel.

Apart from fleeting allusions to the senator's own family, there are no identifiable characters. The chief personages of the second part, the Cleft Maronna and Squirt Horsa, are types. The richest strand of the novel is its discourse on history: Lessing skilfully manipulates multiple perspectives as she portrays the senator grappling with chronicles of events at the dawn of time. Although it lacks the vision and energy of Lessing's recent futuristic novels about General Dann, The Cleft is a bold, inventive and challenging book from a writer who continues to enlighten and astonish as she approaches her tenth decade.

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Throughout the re-presentation of this prehistoric period piece and as the rewriting process goes along, the anonymous narrator shows increasing signs of anxiety about how the document might be received by readers. His sole aim being to restore the truth, he wishes to reveal that in the olden days, males were dominated and even persecuted by females. With so much unhappy history in our memories, and much of it preserved in the Official Memories, it was agre ed— this formulation always signals the smoothing over of disagreement—that as much as the inflammatory material as could be got together must be put in a safe place and made inaccessible to anyone but the trusted custodians. Of whom I am—I was—one. What I am about to relate may be—must be—speculative, but it is solidly based on fact [.


Of Fish and Bicycles

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