I hadn’t read any of Doris Lessing’s books before I read The Grass is Singing, although I’d looked at one or two whilst browsing the library shelves. I wasn’t sure I’d like her books and now I’ve read this, her first novel, I’m still not sure. ‘Like’ is not the right word! How can you ‘like’ the portrayal of the breakdown of a personality, a marriage, a community? The Grass is Singing is a powerful book. Set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1940s, it’s a novel about failure and depression, disaster, racism, racial tension and prejudice, colonialism at its worst. It’s beautifully written, but so tragic.
Anger, violence, death, seemed natural to this vast, harsh country … (page 19)
It’s hard to write about without some spoilers! My immediate reaction to The Grass is Singing was that it is so bleak and depressing and I didn’t want to read any more of Doris Lessing’s books. It’s now nearly a week since I finished reading it and my reaction has changed as I’ve thought over what to write about it. There is so much in it to take in and whilst my reading is mostly for enjoyment with just a nod towards analysing what I’ve read I really think this book deserves more study than I’ve given it. So what follows just scratches the surface and doesn’t really do justice to the book. I think I may very well read more of Lessing’s books – this edition includes a selection of her other books – The Golden Notebook; The Good Terrorist; Love, Again; and The Fifth Child.
It begins with the newspaper report of the death of Mary Turner, the wife of Richard (Dick) Turner, at Ngesi. She was found on the verandah of their house and their houseboy had confessed to the crime. From there it goes back, recounting all the events that lead up to the murder. It’s deceptively simple story, brimming, overflowing with cruelty and suppressed emotion. What is so tragic about it is that Mary and Dick are unable to communicate with each other – neither understands what the other person is feeling. It is unremitting in portraying their poverty and their helplessness to improve their situation.When you add to this the racial prejudice, colonialism – the contempt that the white farmers had for the natives, and the disintegration of personality – Mary has a mental breakdown – it’s a very hard book to read.
One of its strengths is the atmospheric setting. There is no mistaking the location, the stifling heat adding to the tension, the towns with their ‘ugly scattered suburbs‘, ‘ugly little houses stuck anywhere over the veld, that had no relationship with the hard brown African soil and the arching blue sky’ (page 44), and the farm where Dick and Mary lived, over 100 miles from town, surrounded by trees and the bush, with its tiny rooms, red-brick floor, and its corrugated iron roof, rooms with no ceilings, stuffy and unbearably hot.
… the house was built on a low rise that swelled up in a great hollow several miles across, and ringed by kopjes that coiled blue and hazy and beautiful, a long way off in front, but close to the house at the back. It will be hot here, closed in as it is. (page 58)
What is also remarkable is Doris Lessing’s portrayal of Mary. At the beginning of the novel she is an independent woman, maybe a little different from women her own age, a little aloof and shy. But she hadn’t been married and when she reached thirty, vaguely feeling that maybe there was more to life, she overheard people talking about her, wondering why she wasn’t married and saying there was ‘something missing somewhere’. She was stunned and outraged. Dick seemed to be the answer, but he disliked the town, which she loved and where she felt safe. Marrying him, moving to his farm was the trigger that set off her eventual inner disintegration. So, by the end of the book Mary has changed almost beyond recognition! Her reaction to the natives is also shocking, swinging from fear to violence and then passive acceptance of the presence of Moses, the houseboy, who kills her.
It’s a disturbing book about an ugly subject, racism; it’s passionate, and dramatic. I couldn’t like any of the characters, but they got under my skin as I read and I wanted it all to end differently – of course, it couldn’t.