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Doris Lessing Mines Gold In 'Alfred And Emily'

Aug 12, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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In a short explanation included in her latest book, Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing notes that "even alert offspring or children may miss gold" when writing about their parents. But in Alfred And Emily, an idiosyncratic combination of personal history, public history and fiction that focuses on her father and mother, Lessing proves that she hasn't overlooked the gold in her past.

In the first half of the book, Lessing delivers a long and lively novella about her parents' lives in an imaginary England in which World War I does not take place.

"This is a silly, petty, pettifogging little country," Alfred Taylor, Lessing's 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 Alfred Taylor "all the good in the world." He lost a leg in battle — but he also met his wife, Emily, in a hospital where she worked as a nurse attending wounded British soldiers. After marrying, the couple emigrated first to Persia, where Taylor worked in a bank, and then to Rhodesia, where they bought a farm.

In the second half of the book, Lessing reconstructs her childhood on that farm in Africa, describing the gestures and mores of that particular time in her life and of the period.

The land around the farm, Lessing writes, was marked by an an old mawonga tree that was "always full of birds." At one point in the novel, Lessing's mother says, "We'll never get off the farm and they'll bury us under the mawonga tree." But when Lessing returned to the old African home 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 Lessing's past but about how each of us can return to our own family histories — and, if we pay close attention, come back with something gold.

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