The Cleft
by Doris Lessing


HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-083486-9.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 05/02/2008

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Literary

I've been a fan of Doris Lessing for over thirty years but haven't read anything of hers in some time. I loved The Golden Notebook and The Summer Before the Dark, and found Canopus in Argos, her science fiction series, fascinating. I was delighted when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. In truth, I was surprised she was still alive.

The Cleft is tale narrated by a Roman senator and scholar about pre-history. He finds his information from myths and fragments of clay tablets written long after the time of the Clefts. It is a "sounds like the truth to me" story. The Clefts were the first community—a community of women living by the sea near huge up-cropping of rocks, one of which had a large cleft, a caldera that steamed with noxious gases. This community of women gave birth only to girls until one day, a "deformed" child arrived—a boy. The first deformed children were given back to the goddess in the cleft until one woman refused. Thus came the beginning of history and the beginning of union between women and men as well as conflict between women and men.

Interspersed between the telling of the tale is the senator's life story, which has many parallels with the history. The senator also speculates as he writes, "We assume that because these people had shapes like ours, were so much like us, that they felt the same. Perhaps no one had taught them loneliness? Is that such a ridiculous question?... There is not much in the records, for instance of love..."

Who knows what tales will be birthed next by the remarkable Doris Lessing? She is the storyteller of the twentieth century and continues her legend into the twenty-first. Her imaginings all hold a kernel of possible truth.


Doris Lesssing, winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time. She lives in north London.

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