Alfred and Emily, Paperback
1.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


Doris Lessing's first book after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature revisits her childhood in Southern Africa and the lives, both fictional and factual, that her parents led. 'I think my father"s rage at the trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me.

Do children feel their parents' emotions? Yes, we do, and it is a legacy I could have done without.

What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is in my own memory, my own consciousness.' In this extraordinary book, Doris Lessing explores the lives of her parents, both of them irrevocably damaged by the Great War.

Her father wanted the simple life of an English farmer, but shrapnel almost killed him in the trenches, and thereafter he had to wear a wooden leg.

Her mother Emily's great love was a doctor who drowned in the Channel, and she spent the war nursing the wounded in the Royal Free Hospital.

In the first half of this book, Lessing imagines the lives her parents might have made for themselves had there been no war, a story that has them meeting at a village cricket match as children but leading separate lives. This is followed by a piercing examination of their lives as they actually came to be in the shadow of that war, their move to Rhodesia, a damaged couple hulking over Lessing's childhood in a strange land. 'Here I still am,' says Doris Lessing, 'trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.'




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This was a rather unsatisfying read. The premise was fascinating - Lessing explains in the Foreword that both her parents' lives were blighted by World War One (her father, a vigorous and active man, because he lost his leg, and her mother because her lover died), and so she wanted to reimagine their lives as if the war had never happened. She does this in the first half of the book. Neither parent is given an uncomplicatedly happy life, but her father at least ends up content, and her mother finds fulfillment (although she desperately longs for children and does not have any). Their stories, though, are very rushed - her mother's ten-year marriage is disposed of in 12 pages, and a later flirtation, which lasts five years, in 4 pages. I was also a little disturbed by Lessing's treatment of her mother. She writes, after the first part, that she "enjoyed giving him {her father} someone warm and loving". She also describes her mother's "energy, her humour, her flair, her impetuous way with life", but none of this is visible in the portrait she paints. The second half of the book is supposedly about her parents' real lives - but in fact much more of it is about Lessing herself - random musings mixed with autobiographical snippets. There is enough information about her parents for the reader to understand how trapped and frustrated her mother must have felt by her life in Rhodesia - working on a failing farm, with none of the high-society colonial living that she had expected, with a husband who was dying by slow and painful degrees. There is not enough information to understand why Lessing's relationship with her mother was so difficult - we are told several times that she hated her mother, but it's not easy to understand why the relationship was so venomous.

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