Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Alfred & Emily: Review

Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing is two stories in one. She combines a fictional tale of what the lives of her parents, Alfred and Emily, might have been if World War One had never happened--if her father had not come home wounded both physically and emotionally and if her mother had not be damaged as well through caring for a wounded man who suffered from shell shock and who took her from England to a farm in Zimbabwe. The novella which begins the book gives her parents their ideal life. Her father becomes the farmer in England he always dreamed he could be, successful with a wife who enjoyed living on the farm and with two brawny sons. Her mother still becomes a nurse, but after marriage to a doctor who dies in middle-age and leaves her well-off she is able to fund schools and then a refuge for women in trouble. Through her fiction, she allows her parents to become what she imagines might have been their best selves.

The second half of the book tells the real-life story of her parents' struggles with life after the Great War. It shows in detail just how devastating that war was not only for those who lost loved ones, but for those who came home and those who loved them. The despair and depression the parents fought deeply affected Doris and her brother. Doris grew up hating her mother--in part because she pitied her and didn't know how to deal with those emotions as a young girl. Processing her emotions and reactions to her parents' plight may have sent her into therapy later in life, but it also fueled her fiction. It's likely that Alfred and Emily may have been happier if the war had never happened, but would Doris Lessing have been the author she became had she grown up in England? Of course, we'll never know for sure--but it certainly seems like the struggles she experienced in dealing with her parents molded her in ways that shaped her writing.

Each section of the book is interesting in its own right. But I'm not entirely sold on the combination in one volume. The transition between the two sections is inadequate and doesn't quite make a smooth connection. There are hints in reality towards the fictional biography Lessing writes for Alfred and Emily, but she doesn't fully explain some of the choices she made for them. ★★

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