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Doris Lessing Mines Gold In 'Alfred And Emily'
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Doris Lessing Mines Gold In 'Alfred And Emily'

Book Reviews


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Writer Doris Lessing is in her late 80s and still hard at work. Lessing won a Nobel Prize last year, and now she has published her first post-Nobel book. It's called "Alfred & Emily." Here's our reviewer, Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE: "Alfred & Emily," published on the verge of Doris Lessing's 89th birthday, combines in an idiosyncratic fashion personal history, public history and fiction, all about her father and mother. When writing about parents, Lessing says, even alert offspring or children may miss gold. She hasn't missed the gold in her past.

In the first half, Lessing delivers a long and lively novella about her parents' lives in an imaginary England in which the First World War does not take place. This is a silly, petty, pettifogging little country, Alfred Taylor, her father, says in this variation on his actual history. And we're pleased with ourselves because we've kept out of a war. But if you ask me, I think a war would do us all the good in the world.

The actual war did not, as it happens, turn out to do him all the good in the world. He lost a leg in battle. But after meeting Emily in a hospital where she worked as a nurse attending wounded British soldiers, Alfred married her. The couple emigrated with great hopes for their future, first to Persia, where Taylor worked in a bank, and then to Rhodesia, where they bought a farm.

In the second half of this book, Lessing reconstructs her childhood on that farm in Africa, giving us, as trusted novelists will, the gestures and mores of that particular time in her life and of the period. She shows us the land around the farm, which was, as she says, marked by an old mawonga(ph) tree always full of birds. We'll never get off the farm, her mother says. And they'll bury us under the mawonga tree. When Lessing returned to the old African homeground in the early 1980s, she tells us, the tree was gone.

Will this odd and powerful excursion into lost time last, or will it go the way of that mawonga tree? For now, it serves as a marker of an older day and a powerful reminder not only about Doris Lessing's past, but how each of us can return to our own family histories and, if we pay close attention, come back with something gold.

BLOCK: The new novel by Doris Lessing is called "Alfred & Emily." Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse. He teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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