Books: Love in a cold climate

Mara and Dann: an adventure by Doris Lessing Flamingo, pounds 16.99, 407pp; ...but Michele Roberts finds that another leading novelist has filled her fable of a new Ice Age with too many tracts, and not enough tension
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DORIS LESSING'S previous two books were volumes of autobiography, enthralling and satisfying accounts of her life, loves and politics up to the early Sixties. They coloured in the background to the complex person who so often seems to act as a sibyl for our times, foretelling the future with wildly inspired guesswork as though she had a third, magical ear pressed to the alarming ground. In fact, the sibylline divining is closely linked to hard study of our troubled century, to the posing of difficult questions, to her Sufi-style determination to look below the surface of our common-sense assumptions and winkle out what else might be going on.

Lessing seems to define the zeitgeist as much as she describes it, whatever her form. In this latest book she returns to fiction, to the sort of storytelling she refined in the Canopus in Argos: Archives series. In the early Eighties, she wrote a science-fiction-cum-folktale account of a looming ice age, The Making of The Representative for Planet 8, and now she returns in Mara and Dann to that theme of the world threatened with disaster.

In her foreword, Lessing charmingly recounts how her son Peter came in to tell her that he had just been listening on the radio to a tale of an orphaned brother and sister who had all kinds of adventures, suffered a hundred vicissitudes, and ended up living happily ever after.

He suggested to her that she write something similar. Lessing, recognising the archetype of what she calls the oldest story in Europe (also found in most cultures right across the world), was able to reply that she was doing just that and had nearly finished it.

With this kind of global authority, the tone of her narrative is utterly assured and knowledgeable. She describes the novel as an attempt to imagine what some of the consequences might be when the next Ice Age begins, but her account has so successfully converted imagination into reality that there is little room for the reader to speculate, question or wonder. All you can do is sit back and accept what you are told.

Rather than feeling you are really embarking on an adventure, you sense that your role is to imbibe lessons. The narrator certainly knows the outcome and is always a few steps ahead. This is the novel as exposition, and it expounds some painful truths.

Lessing, wryly generous as ever, is well aware of how her audience may resent this: "Mara knew this resentment well: it was what people feel when being asked to take in too much that threatens their idea of themselves, or their world".

Most of the story is told from Mara's point of view. We follow her through war, enforced migration, famine, slavery, entrapment in a brothel, experiences of love and comradeship, to an ending that wraps up history lessons with hopes for the future.

Certainly, most of these motifs, as Lessing remarks, can be found in our world treasury of narratives, whether these are saints' lives or fairy tales. The distinctive note is sounded by the slightly flat prose employed for the telling, which never alters in tone, by the structuring of the story through the reiteration of "and Mara saw", and by Lessing's sharp eye for human foibles and failings. With Mara, we learn to try to question our own ideas of intelligence and memory, to be more open-minded, to see things from other points of view.

Much as I admire Doris Lessing's work in general, I found this a difficult novel to read. This was partly because the story advances slowly, one lengthily described and detailed episode after another, with the plot seemingly based on the simple progression of events rather than being driven forward by the curiosity or desire of its protagonists.

Science fiction and fantasy are not my favourite genres. I am that resentful learner whom Lessing describes, resisting the leap of faith required. I am not, I regret, a good enough reader for this brave millennial novel, which I am sure will find the enthusiastic audience which it deserves.

Michele Roberts's new novel, `Fair Exchange', is published by Little, Brown