Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book review: Alfred and Emily

I began Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing (a book group read) with great expectations –after all, she’s a Nobel Laureate and way back I had read, enjoyed and learnt from The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook. There’s a key problem with any sort of expectation and I met it … my expectations were unmet.

Blake Morrison writing in the Guardian says this book is a ‘bold experiment’ –sadly the experiment failed, but it was bold and perhaps also reckless of Lessing to write in a haphazard, incoherent way. It certainly had raw emotion, as the Sunday Telegraph reviewer noted, but Lessing does nothing with that emotion except repeat it. Surely there was an opportunity to seek an understanding in the hate and anger that invaded the narrative.  

A. S. Byatt wrote that the book ‘makes us think about the moral and emotional power of different ways of telling a story’ Was this a kind way of saying the one positive thing about the book, I wonder. It was certainly different and maybe Lessing in another time, or another author, could have used the idea of turning fact to fiction and then back again to better effect. In Alfred and Emily --good title—the execution is  unsuccessful

Yes, as the Observer, noted, the book is extraordinary –in its lack of coherence, un-engaging prose and characterisation that destroys rather than builds on the people used for the fantasy Lessing devises.

I feel cheated to have expected so much and got so little, except confirmation that good writing is hard even for the most experienced and lauded. And I’ve learnt a little more about what can happen to my expectations! Am I the only person to find this book so disappointing? More on this tomorrow after the book group meeting.

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