mara and dann by doris lessing


i got mara and dann out of the library about two years ago. even though doris lessing's preaching tone somewhat irritates me, this novel got under my skin. i've been plugging it at every opportunity since. now i'm reading it again.

according to lessing, her tale of an orphaned brother and sister who have to endure various hardships is "the oldest most cultures in the world". in this hansel and gretel version the siblings are confronted with the upheavals of a planet in the throes of drought, destruction and the melting of a second ice age.

the book plays on the continent of ifrik — africa (the only continent not submerged in ice) thousands of years in the future. 7-year-old mara and her younger brother dann are kidnapped from their home in the southern region of ifrik and deposited at a safe house of their own tribe, the mahondi, who live among the rock people. life is gruelling and perilous — water dragons, scorpions, and beetles the size of dogs threaten their existence; there is never enough food or water; people slit each other's throats for a piece of tasteless dried root. as war and famine force ever more rock people to travel north, mara and dann, now grown into young adults, travel through hundreds of miles of terrain populated now and then by beleaguered civilizations. adventures in which they experience almost every possible human situation beset them in their migration, rendering this part of the novel even more captivating than the first, more descriptive part.

the language is deceptively simple but doesn't fail to deliver some of lessing's favourite messages: we live in an uncontrollable, cataclysmic universe; we humans are wholly ignorant about the actual forces governing us; we fail to learn from history; history is doomed to repeat itself. we recognize parallels to both universal issues and those of today: urban flight; child abuse; incest; the immigrant experience; the persistence of slavery; the repeating of history due to lessons not learned; a declining birth rate; and how we blithely go on believing everything will be fine despite the proliferation of man-made environmental disasters.

seeing as lessing informs us in the introduction that the novel will have a happy ending, i won't be spoiling it to tell you that brother and sister ultimately surface in a calm place, rich with the promises of new life, fertile land and relative security. lessing leaves us nonetheless with the recognition that all things are transitory — individual lives, collective societies, political doctrines, our planet, the universe itself.

border crossing by pat barker


border crossing is about tom, a psychologist in newcastle who is drawn back into the life of danny, a young man he'd given evidence against in a child murder case. the kid spent all his adolescence in prison. he's out on parole with a new identity but slips into a borderline state when he starts to go back over the murder with tom's help.

pat barker is dealing here with the themes of evil and redemption, truth and identity. she packs in lots of chill and suspense and some subtle humor too. the dialogue is sparse, verging on the poetic.

the character of danny is depicted from various angles: suicidal, charismatic, contriving, manipulating, confused, child-like, criminal, victim of child abuse, scared...

pat barker spoke in an interview about how her novel reflects recent violent crimes committed by children: "when children do something like this it creates a feeling of despair about the future."

the book itself doesn't claim any moral position, so the reader is left with an uncomfortable feeling of ambiguity.