Posted by: Richard Frost | 13 Apr 2020

Doris Lessing: The Cleft book review

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: January 2007
Outlet: In The News

In a nutshell…
The timeless battle of the sexes in a handy handheld hardback.

What’s it all about?
Somewhere deep in the mists of time there lived a utopian society. The Clefts. The Clefts are an exclusively female race and so their lives are blissfully free of love, sex and arguments over whether they just flirted with the barman. Through some shady process, the moon helps these women conceive and give birth, rendering men both redundant and utterly beyond the realms of imagination.

One day, however, a Monster is born. These Monsters are actually the beginnings of the male race and our narrator, a Roman historian, takes it upon himself to document the fledgling origins of his own forefathers. But it’s not easy being a Monster, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can doubtless attest. In fact, these males face a desperate fight for survival against the uncomprehending and fearful Clefts.

After much amateurish torturing and feeding to the eagles, the Monsters break free to set up their own civilisation. As the centuries pass, the males establish an uneasy truce with the females, but it’s high on conflict and low on understanding about the practical benefits of flirting with the barman.

Who’s it by?
Doris Lessing is indisputably one of the giants of the literary world. So much so, in fact, that she’s effectively graduated to the title of legend in her own lifetime.

Her massive corpus of writing stretches from opera, through poetry and short stories, to the novels for which she is rightly famed. Among her most celebrated works of fiction are The Golden Notebook, Memoirs of a Survivor and The Good Terrorist.

As an example…
“Without males, or Monsters, no need ever to think that they were Clefts; without the opposite, no need to claim what they were. When the first baby Monster was born, Male and Female was born too, because before that they were simply, the people.”

Canadian author Margaret Atwood's 2005 novel The Cleft

Likelihood of becoming a Hollywood blockbuster
Some books are ripe for the Hollywood treatment, others are destined to gobble up awards and appear as literary set-texts for years to come. This is definitely one of the latter. A measured study of gender incompatibilities – featuring eye-watering scenes of genital mutilation and murderous gang rape – it’s unlikely that you’ll see Ben Stiller optioning The Cleft anytime soon.

What the others say…
“She’s up there in the pantheon with Balzac and George Eliot. We’re lucky she’s still writing” – Lisa Appignanesi, The Independent

“Doris Lessing has changed the way we think about the world” – Blake Morrison

So is it any good?
I must admit to approaching The Cleft with a fair degree of trepidation. The concept of woman thriving in a shiny happy world before man showed up in all his ugliness did not, it is fair to say, fill me with anticipation. It sounds more like a Germaine Greer flight of fancy circa 1970 than the building blocks of an entertaining novel.

And, true to form, there are more dated gender stereotypes in here than a 1920’s edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. The Clefts are homely, sociable, peaceful, overprotective and squeamish, with an innate desire to sweep up household debris. The Monsters, meanwhile, are adventurous, combative, dominated by their Squirts (yes, that’s the word she actually uses!) and would rather play lame stone-skipping competitions than engage in deep and meaningful relationship talks.

So far, so 1970.

Yet despite the clichés, this novel still wins you over. The fact that the tale is told through the eyes of a sexist Roman senator is a clever conceit, enabling Lessing to document differences between the sexes, without endorsing the narrator’s suggestion that every woman has the blueprint for a household broom etched into their DNA.

Ultimately, a novel lives or dies by its ability to incite debate. The origin of the male race is a rich vein of inspiration, and Lessing uses it magnificently to wheel out gender stereotype after gender stereotype. It’s an irresistible formula, constantly demanding that you think for yourself and either accept or reject the time-honoured clichés.

You may be outraged, then, but it’ll sure get you thinking…



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