The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

Book # 538

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

TGISThis is Doris Lessing’s first novel, published in 1950.  She has another three on the 1001 List.

The setting is 1940s rural Rhodesia.  The opening lines are:

Murder Mystery
by Special Correspondent

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning.  The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime.  No motive has been discovered.
It is thought he was in search of valuables.

And from there we join the story of Mary and Dick Turner starting, at the end of things, with Mary’s death and the arrest of Moses, the houseboy.

Mary is from a poor white family, where her mother struggled to look after them and her father was overly fond of alcohol.  Her childhood leaving a huge psychological scar on her.  As she grows up she finds success as a single woman, working happily in a good job and enjoying an active social life with her many friends and acquaintances.  One day she overhears an insulting comment from people she thought of as friends, and determines then and there to marry.

Along comes Dick Turner, a poor farmer who is on his annual town visit, taken by chance to the movies where he sees Mary and then pursues her only to be absent for months before returning.  They marry in short order, and it is the first sign that things are now set in train that will end in Mary’s death.

Dick takes her to his farm, which he mishandles.  Mary believes she will adapt but the circumstances of their poverty-stricken existence, coupled with the pride that both of them cling to, means that they set themselves apart from the surrounding white community.  Dick is entranced by the land and Mary comes to hate it.

The underlying commentary of the novel is that of the mindset of white Rhodesians towards their native workers, and how their community holds itself together.  Mary is an overt and cruel racist.  She is an intolerable mistress to her houseboys and fires them for the most trivial things.  Dick, also holds similar views, but is less vocal and cruel with them.  At one point Mary starts to feel he is almost like one of the field labourers.  The story displays all the nastiness of the colour bar mentality.
A passage in the second half of the book expresses something of this.

What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip.

Yet, despite that repulsive attitude, there is still something of pity to be had for Mary.  She is clearly a broken person from her childhood and marrying in haste to a man who takes her back into the poverty from which she had escaped opens up all of her earlier experiences once again.  She becomes her mother, only on a farm.  Her personal disintegration is painful to watch, as is her attitude and behaviour towards the native workers.

The same can be said for Dick Turner.  Over the course of the novel, he too begins to unravel.  His inability to complete tasks and take a pragmatic view of his farm keeps them in continuous penury.  His inability to understand Mary, and her distance from him, especially after she sees his mismanagement first hand, eats at him also.  To me it seems like the title was made for him…the grass sings for him… he is obsessed with the farm and this becomes his undoing.

The book is full of easy language, appropriate for it’s time and expressing the values of the people described.  The subject matter is harsh and Lessing doesn’t hold back in her prose.

It is a small book, coming in at just over 200 pages, but it is a challenging one.  Watching people self-destruct and misuse other humans is never going to be light reading, but it is well worth your effort to expand your understanding of life in Southern Africa in mid-century, in order to begin to understand the Southern Africa of today.

Happy reading.



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