Review

Alfred & Emily

by Doris Lessing

ALFRED & EMILY is the moving story of three different lives:
the marriage of the author’s parents, the lives they might
have led had there never been the Great War, and the impact that
the repercussions of their difficulties had on their daughter,
Doris Lessing. Told with her usual straightforward method of
storytelling, it is a revealing portrait of life in another time
and of a difficult and diffident literary personality.

Alfred wanted to be a gentleman farmer. The life he led --- having
suffered the loss of a leg during the war, he had a wooden leg for
the rest of his life, which made his physical existence dull and
slow --- was quite different from the one of his dreams. When he
meets Emily at a cricket match in Colchester, his life takes an
unexpected turn, which leads the family to Africa and then causes
great uproar in each of their lives. Emily spent the war helping
the walking wounded while suffering heartbreak after her true love
--- a young doctor whom she hoped to marry --- drowned in the
English Channel.

Lessing tells the start of their story as if she is writing a young
adult novel, filled with the specter of damning things to come
while two restless and hopeful individuals suffer the slings and
arrows of their burgeoning independent lives as adults out in the
cold, cruel world. That world, replete with wartime distress,
crawls up and into their everyday existence in physical and
emotional ways that impact their daughter's life to this day. This
is the quiet half of the book.

The second half is the part that bites you, infecting you with a
full-blown case of melancholia at the pain and anguish that the
family could not escape. It is fascinating to hear a daughter,
particularly someone as intellectual and unemotional an author as
Lessing, to wax poetic about the whys and wherefores of the
emotional behaviors and consequences of her parents' lives
together. The fact that she, in her advanced age, has not been able
to come out from under these issues is a revealing and moving story
about tribulations that go far beyond the tabloid concerns of our
day and culture.

It is not usual that a memoir by someone so far removed from the
initial situation discussed should be so acid-toned. Sometimes the
second part reads a little like someone's transcripts from a bad
therapy session. But the dramatic resonance of the author's tough
tone and her fans' knowledge of her hard-edged literary style gives
the piece a sharp effect. After all, this is the woman who
responded to her Nobel Prize announcement with a comment about how
she has won so many awards that she can't keep track of them all.
Yikes!

If you're looking for a squishy, rainbow-colored look at the past,
this isn’t the book for you. But if you want a pointed look
at how a child is affected, decades later, by her parents' pasts
and their mistakes, ALFRED & EMILY will not be a
disappointment.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 5, 2011

Alfred & Emily
by Doris Lessing

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2008
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0060834889
  • ISBN-13: 9780060834883