Doris Lessing‘s The Cleft is the first book I have read by her. It is a book unlike most others I have read, with a decidedly feminist leaning, excepting the decidedly more polished works of Simone De Beauvoir. The Cleft is very good in its approach, a version of history recounted by an ancient Roman retelling ancient history himself. A long time ago, women were capable of giving birth to females with the aid of only the moon and the tides. This is an unsubtle approach to tying things in together with women’s bodies and their monthly cycles. We can overlook this, because the tale gets interesting when the first human male is born. Treated as mutants, since they lack the essential cleft, they are contemned, scorned, often castrated and even outright killed. Lessing does not pull any punches as she describes how the first males escape to set up their own settlements, rescued by eagles. The eagles are definitely the deus ex femina in this book. The males set up a tribe and some females abscond with them. Several gang-rapes follow as initial explorations of clumsy physical intimacy.
At times, the storytelling is stretched thin, but luckily for us, the thread holds and we’re treated to a fabulous explanation of gender differences, as seen from the dawn of time. The women are the Clefts, the men The Monsters. The Clefts do not understand why the Monsters have these lumpy muscles and choose to indulge in risky manoeuvres such as jumping over logs, fire and the like, rather than just lying on rocks by the beach. The Monsters in turn, do not understand why the Clefts are so weak and worthless in all physical pursuits, why they don’t help a fallen one if a predator attacks her. Lessing mires the gender gap in such fundamental terms here that it seems insurmountable at times. The Cleft is definitely a alternative version of “real history” where men simply did the grunt work because they had the physical means to do so, while women “laid around” because they were incapacitated by months-long gestation periods that made them almost incapable of physical labour beyond a certain point.
Full points for the depiction of starkness in prehistoric times, not so many points for gratuitous liberties with plots.