The Cleft, by Doris Lessing

Sex and schism at the dawn of time
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The Independent Culture

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... free from men". 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.

Michael Arditti's 'A Sea Change' is published by Maia Press