If at least two Doris Lessings can be said to exist in that writer's massive body of work -- the introspective, politically minded one of The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest novels, and the wildly imaginative one of the Canopus in Argos: Archives -- then the Doris Lessing of this most recent fantasy novel is the latter. What Lessing did in space with the Canopus quintet she now does on Earth with Mara and Dann. This dystopian vision of our planet undergoing another ice age thousands of years in the future is something on the order of Paradise Lost in reverse, or a children's Odyssey for two.
In the middle of the night, our surrogate Adam and Eve, 7-year-old Mara and her younger brother Dann, are kidnapped from their home in the southern region of the continent called Ifrik. They are deposited at a safe house farther north where intermittent droughts and floods have made the land all but uninhabitable except by giant lizards, insects and a few hearty survivors known as "the rock people." So begins Mara and Dann's arduous and perilous journey ever farther north toward their Eden, the lush and clement northern coast of Ifrik. As they grow into adolescents, and then young adults, they travel through hundreds of miles of terrain dotted by various troubled civilizations.
As ever, Lessing is concerned with race and class in her (this time) parabolic Africa. For their protection, Mara and Dann's true identities are kept from them, but they are, in fact, the only surviving members of the Mahondi royal family. The Mahondi, a race of people who once ruled the entire continent of Ifrik, are nearly extinct and openly hated by their former subjects. Mara and Dann are the sole heirs to their slain parents' kingdom; the Alexei and Anastasia Romanovs of their time and place, saved from execution by their beneficent kidnappers and sheltered from their pursuers by a network of loyalists. In their eventual Eden, Mara and Dann form a kind of commune with their companions of various races and classes.
In a retrospective introduction to the Vintage edition of Canopus in Argos, Lessing commented on the tendency of reviewers and academics to dismiss science fiction and fantasy as lesser genres. The question of what constitutes "literature" has been raised again recently over Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, which both Norman Mailer and John Updike have dismissed as unworthy of the name. Is Mara and Dann literature? It lacks the explicit intellectual rigor of The Golden Notebook, but because it will make you think about and vividly imagine some of the deeper questions of human existence, Mara and Dann must qualify, in some sense, as literature.
Lessing's prose here is deceptively simple. There are no grand pronouncements, no outright disquisitions on imperialism, postcolonialism, incest (Mara and Dann struggle with their romantic attachment to each other), ecosystemic disaster, the second sex, the failure of communism or the persistence of slavery in Africa today, but they, and much more, are implied, embedded in Lessing's spare portrait of a world in which everything and nothing about nature and culture has changed radically. If there is a theme, or aphorism, to be gleaned from Lessing's storybook view into the distant future, it is not the familiar conviction that "This, too, shall pass," but, after Nietzsche, the bitter conclusion that "This, too, will happen again ... and again, and again."
Mara and Dann had me by the throat immediately. Whenever I had to put the book down I fretted about the danger in which I had left the characters, until I could get back and let their story move along again.... This skilful novel, both as adventure story and as ecological fable, displays all the vision and energy of a muscular mind, combined with the wisdom of years. I hope everyone reads Mara and Dann and that it wins all the prizes.
Literary Review Magazine
Sunday Times (London)
[Lessing is]...one of the most serious and intelligent and honest writers of the whole post-war generation.
[An] engrossing novel...wonderful.
At times violent, this is a complex book, both frightening and tender.
Mara and her brother Dann are abducted as children and raised by strangers in Ifrick, or Southern Africa, thousands of years in the future. All traces of the technological society of the 20th century have been obliterated by the advance of glaciers that cover most of Europe. The ice cap is finally retreating, but as global warming opens new lands in the north, it also turns the south into a barren desert. Mara and Dann join the great migration to Yerrup, encountering outposts of culture where ancient artifacts are preserved. Mara's insatiable curiosity about these things supplies most of the background for this adult fairy tale. The book's pacing is painfully slow, but the obsessive level of detail may indicate the author's personal involvement: there are obviously some elements of autobiography here. This long novel misses the mark as an adventure story, but it may appeal to diehard Lessing fans. For larger fiction collections.--Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles
The New Yorker
On the surface a grand adventure, this novel at its heart makes a fascinating argument for the force of affection and the power of the questioning mind.
[A] remarkable book from a seemingly inexhaustible writer....She is a major novelist...a substantial achievement.
Doris Lessing...is the foremost creative descendant of the 'great tradition' which includes George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence.
The New York Times Book Review
...Doris Lessing returns to Africa....[the novel] takes place in the distant future....[It explores Lessing's] favorite themes: namely, the ever-shifting relationship between individuals and society, and the eternal tension between domesticity and freedom, responsibility and independence.
The New York Times
Lessing's 22nd novel, a dystopian allegory set in "Ifrik" (formerly Africa) thousands of years hence, is a ponderous, hectoring, fascinating second cousin to her Memoirs of a Survivor (1975) and The Four-Gated City (1969) (and quite reminiscent, incidentally, of Norman Mailer's similarly forbidding Ancient Evenings).
After a global war and second Ice Age have decimated the continent and a more recent drought has made "civilization" only a distant memory, two children, seven-year-old Mara and her younger brother Dann, are abducted and forced to join a slow northward migration, toward water and the remnants of destroyed cities. As they grow to adulthood, together and apart, both are subjected to numbingly repetitive ordeals: capture by conflicting "armies"; enslavement for various purposes (Dann suffers both drug addiction and homosexual rape, while Mara is exploited as a spy and as a "breeder"); and hairbreadth escapes (rather too many) from their several oppressors. Eventually reaching a northern territory where specific knowledge of their culture's past is available, Mara and Dann learn the secret of their own originand the duty they were born for but now reject. Neither plot nor characterization is Lessing's strongest suit, and the story's climactic developments may strike some readers as willful overkill, but this often frustratingly turgid tale generates considerable power nevertheless. The world Lessing's opaque protagonists inhabit has been imagined in weirdly convincing detail: cities ("as temporary as dreams") lie drowned beneath scarce remaining rivers, which run shallow and are infested with "water dragons" (crocodiles) and other exoticpredators; men struggle for dominion over exhausted land; and women scheme to outwit male "rulers." The powerful, almost erotic attraction between brother and sister is virtually palpableas are Mara's fierce hungers: to give birth, be loved, and learn the history of the world crumbling around her.
As demanding and intermittently infuriating as anything Lessing has ever writtenand as necessary. She isn't a stylist, and she takes no prisoners, but this writer remains one of contemporary fiction's genuine thinkers and visionaries, and it would be folly to ignore her.
Read an Excerpt
The scene that the child, then the girl, then the young woman tried so hard to remember was clear enough in its beginnings.She had been hustledsometimes carried, sometimes pulled along by the handthrough a dark night, nothing to be seen but stars, and then she was pushed into a room and told, Keep quiet, and the people who had brought her disappeared.She had not taken notice of their faces, what they were, she was too frightened, but they were her people, the People, she knew that.The room was nothing she had known.It was a square, built of large blocks of rock.She was inside one of the rock houses.She had seen them all her life.The rock houses were where they lived, the Rock People, not her people, who despised them.She had often seen the Rock People walking along the roads, getting quickly out of the way when they saw the People; but a dislike of them that she had been taught made it hard to look much at them.She was afraid of them, and thought them ugly.
She was alone in the big, bare rock room.It was water she was looking forsurely there must be water somewhere? But the room was empty.In the middle of it was a square made of the rock blocks, which she supposed must be a table; but there was nothing on it except a candle stuck in its grease, and burning low ... it would soon go out. By now she was thinking, But where is he, where is my little brother? He, too, had been rushed through the dark.She had called out to him, right at the beginning, when they were snatched away from homerescued, she now knewand a hand had come down over her mouth, "Quiet."And she had heard him cry out to her, and thesudden silence told her a hand had stopped his cry in the same way.She was in a fever, hot and dry over her whole body, but it was hard to distinguish the discomfort of this from her anxiety over her brother.
She went to the place in the wall where she had been thrust in, and tried to push a rock that was a door to one side.It moved in a groove, and was only another slab of rock; but just as she was giving up, because it was too heavy for her, it slid aside, and her brother rushed at her with a great howl that made her suddenly cold with terror and her prickle.He flung himself at her, and her arms went around him while she was looking at the doorway, where a man was mouthing at her and pointing to the child, Quiet, quiet. In her turn she put her hand over his open, howling mouth and felt his teeth in her palm.She did not cry out or pull away, but staggered back against a wall to support his weight; and she put her arms tight around him, whispering, "Hush, shhh, you in must be quiet." And then, using a threat that frightened her too, "Quiet, or that bad man will come." And he at once went quiet, and trembled as he clutched her.The man who had brought in the little boy had not gone away.He was whispering with someone out in the darkness.And then this someone came in, and she almost screamed, for she thought this was the bad man she had threatened her brother with; but then she saw that no, this man was not the same but only looked like him.She had in fact begun to scream, but slammed her own free hand across her mouth, the hand that was not pressing her brother's head into her chest."I thought you were ... that you were ... " she stammered; and he said, "No, that was my brother, Garth." He was wearing the same clothes as the other one, a black tunic, with red on it, and he was already stripping it off.Now he was naked, as she had seen her father and his brothers, but on ceremonial occasions, when they were decorated with all kinds of bracelets and pendants and anklets, in gold, so that they did not seem naked.But this man was as tired and dusty as she and her brother were, and on his back, as he turned it to put on the other tunic he had with him, were slashes from whips, weals where the blood was oozing even now, though some had dried.He pulled over his head a brown tunic, like a long sack, and she again nearly cried out, for this was what the Rock People wore.He stood in front of her, belting this garment with the same brown stuff, and looking hard at her and then at the little boy, who chose this moment to lift his head; and when he saw the man standing there, he let out another howl, just like their dog when he howled at the moon, and again she put her hand over his mouthnot the one he had bitten, which was bleedingbut let him stare over it while she said, "It's not the same man.It's his brother.It's not the bad one.
But she could feel the child trembling, in great fits, and she was afraid he would convulse and even die; and she forced his head around, back into her, and cradled it with her two arms.
For days, but she did not know how long, the two children had been in a room in their own home while the other one, who looked like this man, questioned them.The other one, the bad man, and others in the room, men and women, wore the long black tunics, with red.The two children were the centre of the scene.