Sunday, 10 July 2011

Book #60 Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing

Alfred and Emily

Warning : This review contains some spoilers

Alfred and Emily written by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Doris Lessing, was declared, shortly before publication to be the now 92 year old writer's final book.

Alfred and Emily is a curious blend of fiction and non-fiction the concept of which I was unaware of prior to reading. In the opening section, the first half of the book, we move from August to August beginning in 1902. Alfred Tayler gains notice at a cricket match but opts to stay within the farming community, he has a happy marriage to Betsy and they have twins. At the same cricket match was Emily McVeigh who has scandalised her father and her best friends mother by giving up a university place to become a nurse, her friend Daisy follows her. Later Emily experiences a short, unhappy marriage before becoming involved in charitable works, she maintains contact with her old community including Alfred, from time to time. The early section reminded me much of Virginia Woolf's "Between The Acts". Ordinary British people in the country enjoy summer pursuits, unaware that a World War silently approaches and will tear them apart. At least, that's what I thought was coming.

Alfred and Emily however is a "re-imagining" a guess, at how their lives would have developed without the intervention of the first World War. I read it perplexed, wondering why it didn't impact the characters at all, then suddenly realised that there was something "different" at work here, that Lessing for some reason had edited history and in her story the first World War did not happen.

Suddenly the involving story of Alfred and Emily brings you up short, you turn the page and are confronted by two short obituaries marking their deaths, with half a book left to go. Alfred and Emily are revealed to be Lessing's parents and the story, a story of what her parents lives might have been had not the war intervened, Alfred and Emily having become romantically involved in the war.

Whilst the first half of the book is a fiction, the second half is fact, little vignettes of different aspects of their lives as expats in what is now Zimbabwe and what was then Rhodesia. Their marriage is revealed to not have been entirely happy, and Doris' relationship with them, her mother in particular not always easy.

I suppose we all wonder at times about "might have beens" if we'd chosen a different university, or married a different person and I suppose we all wonder what would have happened if our parents hadn't met, one of my grandfathers for example, almost became a monk. Lessing seems to go one step further though, her story of Alfred and Emily seems almost like wish-fulfillment. Alfred has a happy marriage whilst Emily dies childless. Lessing strongly indicates that in her opinion Emily McVeigh should not have had children but in so doing wishes away her own existence, which makes the book slightly odd.

I found the Rhodesia episodes very true, I find it impossible to remember every incident that has ever happened in my whole life, and I'm only 30. I think all we ever retain are different snapshots of different eras, and the significant moments of our lives.  Although sometimes we don't realise their significance. I am sceptical of autobiographies that recall word for word every detail of their lives and Lessing doesn't do that here.

It' s a shame that I still haven't read a "proper Lessing novel" like The Grass Is Singing or The Golden Notebook, I have only read this : a fact/fiction blend and Shikasta, an experimental space novel. Therefore I feel like I must continue to reserve judgement upon her as a writer.
From what I've read in the Amazon reviews, most people preferred the non-fiction section, I however preferred the fictionalised version of Alfred and Emily. Mainly because I like the idea of alternate realities and whether something so small as not catching the train (as in 1998 film Sliding Doors)  can indeed change the world. 7/10

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