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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 embarks on one final epic endeavor, a retelling of the history of human creation. The story he relates is the little-known saga of the Clefts, an ancient community of women with no knowledge of nor need for men. Childbirth was controlled through the cycles of the moon, and only female offspring were born—until the unanticipated event that jeopardized the harmony of their close-knit society: the strange, unheralded birth of a boy.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061868269
List price: $10.99
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This is not so much a novel as a fantasy wrapped around a theory. The theory is that humans came from the sea and started off by reproducing parthogenetically. Here, a Roman historian describes the quirks of early humanity, based on old written documents which are a transcription of still older oral histories.

The story is that women started giving birth to men, and, considering them deformed, put them out to die. Some of the men survived and then began rescuing the new male babies. After a lot of social upheaval, the men and women got together, and the human race switched over to sexual reproduction. Meanwhile, this tale explains most of the tensions between modern women and men.

Who knows - maybe it did happen that way? Kind of unlikely though. My feeling is that Lessing whipped this book off one daydreamy afternoon, which is about how long it takes to read it.
more
Well I think I understand what Doris Lessing was trying to do here, although I am no great fan of allegory. A sort of creation story, with dialogue, that seeks to explain women and men as separate, like and unlike creatures, attracted and antagonistic towards each other, with each in turn being dependent and imposing. She builds her own mythic world; women (seal like in their smoothness and equanimity) living by the sea; while men follow an rougher, more restless, existence amongst the inland forests. And so on until the arrangement collapses with the men´s destruction (carelessness really...) of the women´s ancestral home and the start of a new existence for both, which brings us to the beginning of recorded history. This story is narrated by a Roman scholar as history, secret writings based on oral traditions are passed down to him, and presented along with a few small asides relating to his current precarious existence under Nero. The storytelling is confident and you have to be impressed by the bravura of it. Lessing does a fair job of distilling all of the themes of men and women, and generations into a book sized parable that reads quite well. But I wonder why she chose this carriage for her ideas, specifically an educated Roman´s view of the natures and origins of women and men. This makes it a story twice removed as it were from our present experience. I can understand that it is a method that blur´s the focus and invites us to suspend judgement on its value as an accurate narrative. It ´hangs together´ as a story retold many times (by wandering story-tellers as it were) before being written down, acquiring over time elaborations that while anachronistic still ring true to the original theme.But my problem with the novel is that while it purports to be a Roman view of the world, Lessings story is told without any sense that it is being relayed by a Roman with Roman sensibilities, by someone whose mythological world is already filled with Greek and Roman concepts not just of creation, but of carefully defined aspects of female and male. Those stories of Aphrodite, Hera and Zeus still seem to me to carry more power, and insight into our character than Lessing´s. I struggle to see how it could have been relayed without reference to this already rich world of concepts of female and male, beyond the barest reference to the suckling of Romulus and Remus by the wolf-mother. And then I wonder why Lessing did not simply choose science fiction, or future history as the field in which to play out these themes, particularly as she has already written so well in both of them. At the end of the day I am left with the impression that she might have been attracted to the challenge of writing a convincing – and entirely new - story of the pre-history of men and women. But to write about our most basic aspects of femaleness and maleness without also referencing our incredibly rich concepts (expressed in ancient and modern myth) about male and femaleness seems to leave half the story untold. Or perhaps she intended to do exactly that, strip the story of all of our previously invented explanations and ask us to consider the issue afresh.This book does not work at all as an entertainment; nor as the final word on the great themes of women and men. But as a thought-provoker, a subtle irritant that works on the mind – and the prejudices – of the reader, it sort of works. Perhaps best to approach this unpromising rough oyster via a more extensive reading of Lessings other books, lest you miss the small pearl contained herein.more
I love Doris Lessing, but The Cleft is a disappointing, and rather boring, piece of a speculative fiction. The premise is that a Roman Senator is compiling an account of human origins from the earliest of prehistoric times supposedly based on oral accounts of "Memories" later transcribed. The basic premise of humanity rising from the sea comes from Elaine Morgan's Descent of Woman published in the 1970s. There's no real story here unfortunately.more
In The Cleft, a Roman senator takes on a project whereby he will compile into a single narrative the fragments of recorded oral histories telling of the time when the human race first divided into two distinct kinds: female and male. The novel is presented as that compilation, with interjections and speculations in the first person from the senator. The Cleft might be called speculative mythology, and it explores what would happen if a community of women, who had always lived without even a concept of "male," never mind any actual men, and who were impregnated by nature without any identifiable cause, suddenly started giving birth to boys. The novel begins with those first births of boys, and continues on to the time when men and women develop their first small understandings of one another. The Cleft is an odd book, and one which I have a hard time coming to terms with, which I'm not sure how to understand. But it's exploration of gender difference and its handling of its premise are compelling, even if the book does drag a bit in the last third. Recommended.more
Doris Lessing’s The Cleft is more like an ambiguous epic than a novel – an alternate story of human origins neither evolutionary, in the Darwinian sense, nor divine. The premise is that a Roman historian narrates the sketchily recorded history of a race of women called Clefts who knew no men and gave birth only to daughters. This community is not necessarily utopian, but it is comfortably settled and seemingly governed by consensus. A change occurs and this is the starting point for the story: the women begin giving birth to boys – initially called monsters and sacrificed to the eagles because they’re considered deformed. I won’t go further than this in describing the plot, so as not to spoil it for others planning to read the book. But I will say that Lessing maintains distance between her readers and her characters. Perhaps the Clefts and monsters are meant to remain elusive because their recorded history can permit us no greater intimacy – or perhaps because Lessing wants to remind readers of how different people were, in these early stages of culture, from us today. I guess I would say that this is a novel of ideas. It debates the limits of recoverable history, the politics of historical representation, sexual politics, gender stereotypes and so on. The early naming of women and men reduces them to their genitals: Clefts and Squirts. Indeed, in this early community, mating and reproduction become very important. Some commentators have observed that there are plenty of gender stereotypes: women as naggers, nesters and fretting child-rearers and men as questers, warriors and delinquent fathers. This is true. I wasn’t sure whether this reflected on the bias of the Roman narrator or on the way gender roles were alleged to have emerged from ancient living conditions. Is Lessing saying that these roles were once – in ancient times – useful or inevitable (and now possibly archaic given our changed conditions)? Is she justifying them as biologically natural? Or is she suggesting that they are simply assumed and incorporated by the Roman narrator? I think this ambiguity, while uncomfortable, is actually one of the novel’s strengths. That said, I found the book intriguing and challenging, rather than straightforwardly enjoyable. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, so I recommend it to those interested in either Lessing or the ideas she debates.more
The story is of creation in reverse - first came the women. So relates a Roman Senator who wishes to stem the tide of Christianity as it inserts itself into Roman society. Full of symbolism and euphemisms, the book was difficult to read. It seemed to focus on why women nag and why men deserve to be nagged. It could have been so much more.more
A fascinating idea that is not fully realized. I was disappointed in how such an interesting theory-- that humans were originally only female-- ended up as a story that relied predominantly on stereotypes, and mainly the cliched stereotypes of bad jokes on marriage (think "men get lost but won't admit being lost;" "women are incessant nags"). Perhaps that's meant to be assumed as the rendering through the biased eyes of our male Roman historian narrator. If it is, the narrative device fails the idea behind the novel. Lessing is a good writer, even here the story has a good flow to it, but I had to make myself finish this relatively short book, and it took me longer than to read than good books twice its length.more
The premise of this novel intrigued me immensely: a mythical, entirely female community, living in harmony with nature, is disrupted by the birth of a ‘Monster’ – a boy. Initially, the premise seems likely to deliver a thoughtful story, complicated as it is by being told through the voice of a Roman man; this is a situation which is guaranteed to lead to a slight distrust of the narrator, telling the women’s story. The narrator’s reluctance to tell the story if the women’s initial cruelty to the Monsters is striking in contrast to their own insistent hatred and fear of the strange tubes and pipes that the males possess. As the novel progresses, you increasingly question his bias as he weaves parts of his own history into the tale and extrapolates from it to develop simple and apparently inflexible truths about human nature.There are some interesting ideas in the first section of the tale. The first fragmented bit of history that the ‘historian’ narrator recounts describes a world in which there was no awareness of females or mothers, for they were all female and mothers, and one can only define oneself by finding differences from the other. Moreover, they were scarcely aware of themselves as individuals, and many women were identified by the same title as they completed the same jobs. Interestingly, this is not really a utopia: the women are mindlessly content, but there is nothing in their mundane existence to envy. This is made clear by the narrator’s description of them as incurious almost slug like creatures. They do not question. They procreate effortlessly but do not seek to create or explore. Later on in the novel, they are repeatedly contrasted against the active men, who build and hunt and generally develop more skills in decades than the women have since whenever they crawled out of the sea.Ultimately, this is my problem with the novel: the characters are gendered caricatures. While a few characters are picked out and followed, even these are slaves to their genes. The men are active; the women nag. The men want adventure and challenge; the women want clean huts and instinctively know how to fix hurts. Regardless of Lessing’s use of narrative voice, she seems to be endorsing a thoroughly biological view of human nature as fixed, unchanging and inescapable.The main strength of the novel is its fluid narrative style which successfully creates a sense of myth. Lessing’s use of repetition emphasises this, especially in the first section of the novel, in which the same events are recounted three times, in a varying amount of detail. The fluidity of the characters supports this mode of storytelling. Even key characters suffer from a sense of flux: they appear without preface, their lifespan is indefinite and they vanish without care. In this way, the novel also raises some interesting questions about history: what can we know for certain? Who can we trust to record it?Overall, this is an unusual novel that seems to lack a thoughtful response to the question it initially posed.more
A nightmarish tale about human creation where women are called "clefts" and men are called "monsters" or "squirts". Male babies are sacrificed for years until some eagles decide to save the "monster" babies and to take them to another part of the island they all share..where they grow up to be "squirts". When the Clefts learn of this, they wander over and thus begins the story of how the human race began. Add animals that feed the babies, genital mutilation, and depictions of rape and murder and you have The Cleft. It was almost unbearable for me to read it. Crude and not well written. I would give it half a star if I could figure out how to do somore
This was the first book I've read from the author. It was a bad choice. The idea of the book was really promising, an ancient community where only women exist and the effects of male children being born. Although there were some interesting insight of male and female differences, the story was boring, unoriginal, depressing. The narrative story which was going on in between was completely unnecessary. Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2007 and came across as a very interesting person in the interview, which was shown after the award winner was announced. I'm hoping to read some of her other books, which are highly acclaimed, but this was a very unfortunate introduction to her work.more
Hated the book because I hated the narrartor. He repeats himself endlessly and with such a bias it made me unable to read it. I tried to skip around hoping it would get to a point where I could read more but never found that point. Even at the end he was repeating things he'd said early on. Ugh.more
This fable about how our women ancestors dealt with the advent of the Monsters/Squirts(men) is remarkable for the questions it raises, and the often bold and even silly way it directs them. In the end I was willing to be much more swept away than I was, for the premise is so bewilderingly valid (considering the so much less imaginable Judeo-Christian story of our beginnings...) and Lessing's telling of it so abrupt!more
I enjoyed this fable type story as well as the premise of gender biases. It's a quick, easy read that inspires some questions.more
Read all 17 reviews

Reviews

This is not so much a novel as a fantasy wrapped around a theory. The theory is that humans came from the sea and started off by reproducing parthogenetically. Here, a Roman historian describes the quirks of early humanity, based on old written documents which are a transcription of still older oral histories.

The story is that women started giving birth to men, and, considering them deformed, put them out to die. Some of the men survived and then began rescuing the new male babies. After a lot of social upheaval, the men and women got together, and the human race switched over to sexual reproduction. Meanwhile, this tale explains most of the tensions between modern women and men.

Who knows - maybe it did happen that way? Kind of unlikely though. My feeling is that Lessing whipped this book off one daydreamy afternoon, which is about how long it takes to read it.
more
Well I think I understand what Doris Lessing was trying to do here, although I am no great fan of allegory. A sort of creation story, with dialogue, that seeks to explain women and men as separate, like and unlike creatures, attracted and antagonistic towards each other, with each in turn being dependent and imposing. She builds her own mythic world; women (seal like in their smoothness and equanimity) living by the sea; while men follow an rougher, more restless, existence amongst the inland forests. And so on until the arrangement collapses with the men´s destruction (carelessness really...) of the women´s ancestral home and the start of a new existence for both, which brings us to the beginning of recorded history. This story is narrated by a Roman scholar as history, secret writings based on oral traditions are passed down to him, and presented along with a few small asides relating to his current precarious existence under Nero. The storytelling is confident and you have to be impressed by the bravura of it. Lessing does a fair job of distilling all of the themes of men and women, and generations into a book sized parable that reads quite well. But I wonder why she chose this carriage for her ideas, specifically an educated Roman´s view of the natures and origins of women and men. This makes it a story twice removed as it were from our present experience. I can understand that it is a method that blur´s the focus and invites us to suspend judgement on its value as an accurate narrative. It ´hangs together´ as a story retold many times (by wandering story-tellers as it were) before being written down, acquiring over time elaborations that while anachronistic still ring true to the original theme.But my problem with the novel is that while it purports to be a Roman view of the world, Lessings story is told without any sense that it is being relayed by a Roman with Roman sensibilities, by someone whose mythological world is already filled with Greek and Roman concepts not just of creation, but of carefully defined aspects of female and male. Those stories of Aphrodite, Hera and Zeus still seem to me to carry more power, and insight into our character than Lessing´s. I struggle to see how it could have been relayed without reference to this already rich world of concepts of female and male, beyond the barest reference to the suckling of Romulus and Remus by the wolf-mother. And then I wonder why Lessing did not simply choose science fiction, or future history as the field in which to play out these themes, particularly as she has already written so well in both of them. At the end of the day I am left with the impression that she might have been attracted to the challenge of writing a convincing – and entirely new - story of the pre-history of men and women. But to write about our most basic aspects of femaleness and maleness without also referencing our incredibly rich concepts (expressed in ancient and modern myth) about male and femaleness seems to leave half the story untold. Or perhaps she intended to do exactly that, strip the story of all of our previously invented explanations and ask us to consider the issue afresh.This book does not work at all as an entertainment; nor as the final word on the great themes of women and men. But as a thought-provoker, a subtle irritant that works on the mind – and the prejudices – of the reader, it sort of works. Perhaps best to approach this unpromising rough oyster via a more extensive reading of Lessings other books, lest you miss the small pearl contained herein.more
I love Doris Lessing, but The Cleft is a disappointing, and rather boring, piece of a speculative fiction. The premise is that a Roman Senator is compiling an account of human origins from the earliest of prehistoric times supposedly based on oral accounts of "Memories" later transcribed. The basic premise of humanity rising from the sea comes from Elaine Morgan's Descent of Woman published in the 1970s. There's no real story here unfortunately.more
In The Cleft, a Roman senator takes on a project whereby he will compile into a single narrative the fragments of recorded oral histories telling of the time when the human race first divided into two distinct kinds: female and male. The novel is presented as that compilation, with interjections and speculations in the first person from the senator. The Cleft might be called speculative mythology, and it explores what would happen if a community of women, who had always lived without even a concept of "male," never mind any actual men, and who were impregnated by nature without any identifiable cause, suddenly started giving birth to boys. The novel begins with those first births of boys, and continues on to the time when men and women develop their first small understandings of one another. The Cleft is an odd book, and one which I have a hard time coming to terms with, which I'm not sure how to understand. But it's exploration of gender difference and its handling of its premise are compelling, even if the book does drag a bit in the last third. Recommended.more
Doris Lessing’s The Cleft is more like an ambiguous epic than a novel – an alternate story of human origins neither evolutionary, in the Darwinian sense, nor divine. The premise is that a Roman historian narrates the sketchily recorded history of a race of women called Clefts who knew no men and gave birth only to daughters. This community is not necessarily utopian, but it is comfortably settled and seemingly governed by consensus. A change occurs and this is the starting point for the story: the women begin giving birth to boys – initially called monsters and sacrificed to the eagles because they’re considered deformed. I won’t go further than this in describing the plot, so as not to spoil it for others planning to read the book. But I will say that Lessing maintains distance between her readers and her characters. Perhaps the Clefts and monsters are meant to remain elusive because their recorded history can permit us no greater intimacy – or perhaps because Lessing wants to remind readers of how different people were, in these early stages of culture, from us today. I guess I would say that this is a novel of ideas. It debates the limits of recoverable history, the politics of historical representation, sexual politics, gender stereotypes and so on. The early naming of women and men reduces them to their genitals: Clefts and Squirts. Indeed, in this early community, mating and reproduction become very important. Some commentators have observed that there are plenty of gender stereotypes: women as naggers, nesters and fretting child-rearers and men as questers, warriors and delinquent fathers. This is true. I wasn’t sure whether this reflected on the bias of the Roman narrator or on the way gender roles were alleged to have emerged from ancient living conditions. Is Lessing saying that these roles were once – in ancient times – useful or inevitable (and now possibly archaic given our changed conditions)? Is she justifying them as biologically natural? Or is she suggesting that they are simply assumed and incorporated by the Roman narrator? I think this ambiguity, while uncomfortable, is actually one of the novel’s strengths. That said, I found the book intriguing and challenging, rather than straightforwardly enjoyable. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, so I recommend it to those interested in either Lessing or the ideas she debates.more
The story is of creation in reverse - first came the women. So relates a Roman Senator who wishes to stem the tide of Christianity as it inserts itself into Roman society. Full of symbolism and euphemisms, the book was difficult to read. It seemed to focus on why women nag and why men deserve to be nagged. It could have been so much more.more
A fascinating idea that is not fully realized. I was disappointed in how such an interesting theory-- that humans were originally only female-- ended up as a story that relied predominantly on stereotypes, and mainly the cliched stereotypes of bad jokes on marriage (think "men get lost but won't admit being lost;" "women are incessant nags"). Perhaps that's meant to be assumed as the rendering through the biased eyes of our male Roman historian narrator. If it is, the narrative device fails the idea behind the novel. Lessing is a good writer, even here the story has a good flow to it, but I had to make myself finish this relatively short book, and it took me longer than to read than good books twice its length.more
The premise of this novel intrigued me immensely: a mythical, entirely female community, living in harmony with nature, is disrupted by the birth of a ‘Monster’ – a boy. Initially, the premise seems likely to deliver a thoughtful story, complicated as it is by being told through the voice of a Roman man; this is a situation which is guaranteed to lead to a slight distrust of the narrator, telling the women’s story. The narrator’s reluctance to tell the story if the women’s initial cruelty to the Monsters is striking in contrast to their own insistent hatred and fear of the strange tubes and pipes that the males possess. As the novel progresses, you increasingly question his bias as he weaves parts of his own history into the tale and extrapolates from it to develop simple and apparently inflexible truths about human nature.There are some interesting ideas in the first section of the tale. The first fragmented bit of history that the ‘historian’ narrator recounts describes a world in which there was no awareness of females or mothers, for they were all female and mothers, and one can only define oneself by finding differences from the other. Moreover, they were scarcely aware of themselves as individuals, and many women were identified by the same title as they completed the same jobs. Interestingly, this is not really a utopia: the women are mindlessly content, but there is nothing in their mundane existence to envy. This is made clear by the narrator’s description of them as incurious almost slug like creatures. They do not question. They procreate effortlessly but do not seek to create or explore. Later on in the novel, they are repeatedly contrasted against the active men, who build and hunt and generally develop more skills in decades than the women have since whenever they crawled out of the sea.Ultimately, this is my problem with the novel: the characters are gendered caricatures. While a few characters are picked out and followed, even these are slaves to their genes. The men are active; the women nag. The men want adventure and challenge; the women want clean huts and instinctively know how to fix hurts. Regardless of Lessing’s use of narrative voice, she seems to be endorsing a thoroughly biological view of human nature as fixed, unchanging and inescapable.The main strength of the novel is its fluid narrative style which successfully creates a sense of myth. Lessing’s use of repetition emphasises this, especially in the first section of the novel, in which the same events are recounted three times, in a varying amount of detail. The fluidity of the characters supports this mode of storytelling. Even key characters suffer from a sense of flux: they appear without preface, their lifespan is indefinite and they vanish without care. In this way, the novel also raises some interesting questions about history: what can we know for certain? Who can we trust to record it?Overall, this is an unusual novel that seems to lack a thoughtful response to the question it initially posed.more
A nightmarish tale about human creation where women are called "clefts" and men are called "monsters" or "squirts". Male babies are sacrificed for years until some eagles decide to save the "monster" babies and to take them to another part of the island they all share..where they grow up to be "squirts". When the Clefts learn of this, they wander over and thus begins the story of how the human race began. Add animals that feed the babies, genital mutilation, and depictions of rape and murder and you have The Cleft. It was almost unbearable for me to read it. Crude and not well written. I would give it half a star if I could figure out how to do somore
This was the first book I've read from the author. It was a bad choice. The idea of the book was really promising, an ancient community where only women exist and the effects of male children being born. Although there were some interesting insight of male and female differences, the story was boring, unoriginal, depressing. The narrative story which was going on in between was completely unnecessary. Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2007 and came across as a very interesting person in the interview, which was shown after the award winner was announced. I'm hoping to read some of her other books, which are highly acclaimed, but this was a very unfortunate introduction to her work.more
Hated the book because I hated the narrartor. He repeats himself endlessly and with such a bias it made me unable to read it. I tried to skip around hoping it would get to a point where I could read more but never found that point. Even at the end he was repeating things he'd said early on. Ugh.more
This fable about how our women ancestors dealt with the advent of the Monsters/Squirts(men) is remarkable for the questions it raises, and the often bold and even silly way it directs them. In the end I was willing to be much more swept away than I was, for the premise is so bewilderingly valid (considering the so much less imaginable Judeo-Christian story of our beginnings...) and Lessing's telling of it so abrupt!more
I enjoyed this fable type story as well as the premise of gender biases. It's a quick, easy read that inspires some questions.more
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