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.



Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

Book #586

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

Please do not adjust your computer screens, you are not seeing double.  Or perhaps you are.  Usually we post two reviews of the same book together, on the same day. This time we have split them into two posts.  You may wish to cast your mind back a week to Beth’s review before reading on.

FMLFarewell, My Lovely was written in 1940 and is the second of Raymond Chandler’s novels featuring the private investigator, Philip Marlowe.  The story starts, as Beth notes, with Marlowe working a dead-end case when he inadvertently becomes embroiled with ex-convict Moose Malloy’s search for his old girlfriend Velma Valento.  Murder, drugs, jewellery gangs, gambling and varying other mysteries of the underworld all follow on from this initial encounter.

This was my first time reading an American noir novel.  And I loved it. Perhaps that’s in part due to an age-old love affair I have going with Humphrey Bogart and having the film version of The Big Sleep under my belt.  The wit and snappy dialogue that Marlowe spits out at nearly every opportunity is worth the read alone.  He’s the sort of character that speaks his mind, rubs people up the wrong way and doesn’t give a darn.

Hired to help recover a stolen necklace, he ends up talking with the beautiful owner, and this passage of banter is a great example of Chandler’s writing style and Marlowe’s speech.

Her eyes flashed at that.  I liked them that way. ‘There’s such a thing as being just a little too frank,’ she said.
‘Not in my business.  Describe the evening.  Or have me thrown out on my ear.  One or the other.  Make your lovely mind up.’
‘You’d better sit over here beside me.’
‘I’ve been thinking that a long time,’ I said. ‘Ever since you crossed your legs, to be exact.’
She pulled her dress down. ‘These damn things are always up around your neck.’
I sat beside her on the yellow leather chesterfield. ‘Aren’t you a pretty fast worker?’ she asked quietly.
I didn’t answer her.
‘Do you do much of this sort of thing?’ she asked with a sidelong look.
‘Practically none.  I’m a Tibetan monk, in my spare time.’

And that’s just how he chats to the clients.  Try his style with the police.  Speaking with Randall, the police detective working on the case, he isn’t any less snappy despite an horrific couple of days locked in a hospital prior to this conversation.

‘Was that a gag, about your being sick, in a hospital?’
‘No gag.  I ran into a little trouble – down in Bay City.  They took me in.  Not the cooler, a private dope and liquor cure.’
His eyes got distant. ‘Bay City, eh?  You like it the hard way, don’t you, Marlowe?’
‘It’s not that I like it the hard way.  It’s that I get it that way.  But nothing like this before.  I’ve been sapped twice, the second time by a police officer or a man who looked like one and claimed to be one.  I’ve been beaten with my own gun and choked by a tough Indian.  I’ve been thrown unconscious into this dope hospital and kept there locked up and part of the time probably strapped down.  And I couldn’t prove any of it, except that I actually do have quite a nice collection of bruises and my left arm has been needled plenty.’

He’s one tough cookie.  Indeed one of the archetypal hard-boiled detectives.  He deserves his place on the 1001 list and I hope that some time soon you take up a copy and meet Mr Marlowe.

One note though, is that the time period in American history also brings with it some unpleasant language to a modern ear.  The dice emporium, Florian’s, mentioned in the opening quote of Beth’s review is an African-American establishment and the first section of the novel involves the use of the “n-word”, although not excessively so.  I also learned a couple of new (to me) derogatory terms that were clearly commonplace at the time – dinge being one and shines being another – which were used more frequently.   While I, in no way, countenance the use of offensive terms, I am also of the school of thought that does not like the expunging of the language of eras past.  For me, cleaning up the language from original works seems to be a way of denying those attitudes and conditions existed.  If you are not comfortable seeing life represented in linguistic terms as it was in the mid-20th century then you may not find the first portion of this novel to be comfortable reading.  But do stick with it, the story and Marlowe’s character are worth the effort.