From Publishers Weekly
Eminent novelist Lessing offers an alternative origin story for the human race, indirectly recalling the alternate world speculations of her Canopus in Argos
SF novels. Positing that the primal human stock was female rather than male, Lessing invents a cult of ancient women called the Clefts, a name derived, in part, from that essential part of female anatomy. The story of the Clefts is bookended by the journal of a Roman historian, who interprets ancient documents stating that females were originally impregnated by a fertilizing wind or a wave, to give birth to female children. But one day a deformed baby is born, with a lumpy swelling never seen before. The first rape and the first murder follow soon enough, as do the first instances of consensual intercourse and the babies—the first of a new race, with a nature derived from both sexes—that are the result. Humor, which may or may not be intentional, is introduced into a generally lethargic text when women and men discover they can't live with or without each other, and the battle of the sexes commences. The novel has elements of a feminist tract, but the story it tells doesn't present a significant challenge to that of Adam and Eve. (Aug.)
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Outspoken, prolific, and influential, Lessing has cycled through an array of literary genres in her quest to tell stories that protest prejudice, fathom consciousness, and chart the entrenched battle between the sexes. In her newest audacious, ludicrously titled novelyes, The Cleft does refer to the aspect of the female anatomy you suspect it mightLessing employs a classic framing device. During Nero's rule, a Roman senator with a much younger and more sexually adventurous wife is working through "a mass of material accumulated over ages," pertaining to a prehistoric all-woman tribe. The Clefts loll about in the surf and are mysteriously impregnated by the sea, until nature plays one of its tricks, and they suddenly give birth to what they call Monsters, but which we recognize as males. After the females' attempts to kill off the baby boys fail, thanks to the intervention of giant eagles, the two adversarial groups gradually discover that they need each other to reproduce, and that just as their bodies are different yet complementary, so, too, are their temperaments. As the good Roman chronicles, to the best of his ability, the way these early, contentious humans formed families and opened themselves to love, he marvels over the processes by which memories morph into myth, and history is assembled. As for Lessing, she overcomes initial narrative awkwardness to forge a mordantly entertaining fable rich in incident, discernment, and reflection. Seaman, Donna