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Originally published Friday, August 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Alfred and Emily": An imaginary do-over

In "Alfred and Emily," Nobel laureate Doris Lessing captures a double exposure of her parents' lives — one that sticks to the facts, and another that imagines an alternative world for them.

Seattle Times book critic

"Alfred and Emily"

by Doris Lessing

Harper, 274 pp., $25.95

Doris Lessing, winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, will be 90 next year — but age hasn't dampened her attraction to prickly subject matter or her interest in experimental narrative form.

In her new book, "Alfred and Emily," she approaches her parents' lives from two contrasting angles: one fictional, one reminiscent. Her creation of an alternate existence for them has a mournful motive, for their actual lives, she believes, were disastrous.

"The First World War did them both in," Lessing writes in her foreword. "Shrapnel shattered my father's leg, and thereafter he had to wear a wooden one. He never recovered from the trenches."

Her mother, a nurse treating wounded soldiers at London's Royal Free Hospital, lost a doctor she loved during the war and did not overcome that loss either. Her marriage to Alfred (she was his nurse after he lost his leg) and their failed attempt to make a go of farming in Southern Rhodesia have been addressed by Lessing before. But her fictionalizing of their lives has a new twist to it, as she tries to imagine what they would have been like "if there had been no World War One."

It's a tough sell: 20th-century Europe magically free of wartime devastation. Yet some aspects of the book's first section, "Alfred and Emily: a novella," are cannily handled. For one thing, Alfred and Emily don't marry each other. For another, Emily's marriage to her doctor is a less than happy alliance. The circumstances may be different, but Emily still finds herself changing, as she did in her real life, from "a decided, definite, bold character" to "something that drifted." Meanwhile, Alfred's dream of being a farmer in England is fulfilled — but with striking domestic complications.

Still, the novella isn't as satisfying as the nonfiction portion of the book. It feels rushed as it covers 70-odd years in 138 pages. The alternative-history backdrop is sketchy and unconvincing. And the dialogue can be clunky. (Alfred, on his young manhood: "What good times they were. Oh, what jolly times we did have.")

Turn to section two, "Alfred and Emily; Two Lives," and the voices — both Lessing's and her parents' — are alive, fluid, anxious, believable. Lessing's memory of her mother's voice makes it clear that Emily's wartime scars went as deep as Alfred's.

"They were so young, you see, so dreadfully young, those poor boys," she recalls. "They were dying. They were sometimes dead when they arrived. We did what we could. We would make wards for them out of the corridors. But they died, you see, and often we could do nothing. ... It was so terrible, do you see ... "

The nervous tic of that repeated "you see" and Alfred's equivalent lament for his lost fellow soldiers ("such good chaps ... such fine men ... such fine young chaps") add up to a soundtrack no child would want to hear for long.

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"I could have listened," Lessing recalls, "but it was all too much. The fate of parents who most terribly need their offspring to listen, to 'take in' something of their own substance, is often to be thwarted."

The memoir portion isn't entirely covered by wartime shadows. All around Lessing was the "magnificent country" where her parents were trying to scratch out a living. She, her brother and even father, before he began to succumb to diabetes, were enchanted by it. Lessing fondly remembers calling her father to lunch one day, and him putting her off: "I don't want to stop watching this spider."

She's decidedly less fond of her mother, yet over the years has come to pity the woman who focused all her talents and energy on "one graceless, angry girl who had only one idea, which was to leave her." At times, Lessing's reminiscence reads almost like an apology to the parent who introduced her to books, music and the possibilities — glimpsed in some moth-eaten dresses in an old steamer trunk — of a world far removed from the African bush.

If you're new to Lessing, "Alfred and Emily" isn't the place to start. Try instead her African-set debut novel "The Grass Is Singing," her celebrated masterpiece "The Golden Notebook," or her two great novels of the 1980s, "The Good Terrorist" and "The Fifth Child." Her account of her move from Africa to London in 1949, "In Pursuit of the English," is fine stuff, too.

Note: Harper seems to have had copy-editing problems with the new book, inserting unnecessary hyphens in words ("clus-tered," "strik-ingly," etc.). A Nobel laureate surely deserves better.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com.

He has been The Seattle Times' book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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