This is my review of The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing.
It is easy to understand why “The Grass is Singing” made such an impact in 1950, because the “no holds barred” presentation of naked racism, from which I suspect many current writers would now shy, must have served the purpose of shaming people into confronting their own prejudice, or galvanising them into trying to change the culture. The book may now seem a bit dated, with the end of apartheid in South Africa and of white colonialism in Southern Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – where the book is set. Also, the recent revolution in feminism and sexual equality may make it less likely that a woman like Mary Turner would endure her grim life on a remote farm until it drove her mad.
However, the racism remains shocking, with the added point that it helps one to understand, although not condone, the recent “turning of tables”, with Mugabe’s extremism and the violence perpetrated on white farmers by embittered and impoverished black Zimbabweans.
From the first page, we are catapulted into the drama of the murder of Mary Turner, wife of a unsuccessful farmer, and witness the cynical closing of ranks of the local white community – Mary has somewhow broken the code of “keeping on top of the situation” by failing to control her native staff in the right way – not least the “house boy”, actually physically impressive man, Moses, who has accepted responsibility for her death. The rest of the book is a description of Mary’s life, showing the train of events leading inexorably to her murder. It provides a minutely observed analysis of her ongoing state of mind, shifts in her thinking and motivation, and her ultimate mental deterioration. The same applies to her husband Dick. The two are clearly incompatible, and destroy each other, but show redeeming features and finer qualities, so that one empathises with them both, despite Dick’s weakness and Mary’s excessive cruelty towards the workers.
Then there is the aspect which I admire most of all – Doris Lessing’s vivid evocation of the African landscape, the sights, scents, wildlife, shifting weather and seasons. This is what also struck me most in her very different and perhaps even more famous work, “The Golden Notebook”. She has the gift for bringing alive a continent one may never have seen, in all its wild beauty and oppressive heat – the bush is poised to reclaim in a few months the homestead and farm which Dick has slaved for years to cultivate.
At times, the bleak sadness of Mary’s life felt unendurable, and I was forced to put the book aside for a few hours. Towards the end, the sexual tension, perverted mutual hatred and fascination betwen Mary and Moses, is built up with great skill. I agree with reviewers who have said that the final chapter, although very powerful and imaginative, loses some of the striking clarity of the earlier prose as regards the behaviour of the two protagonists, Mary and Moses. Perhaps Doris Lessing intends to portray the confusion of Mary’s madness, but I am left a little uncertain as to what Moses’ precise motives for the murder are (plus I was half-expecting a final plot twist!). On a second reading,I saw how Moses might have been driven by misplaced jealousy rather than just the desire to dominate Mary.
On technical grounds, you could perhaps criticise Lessing for using too much of a “telling” style of narrative. Nevertheless, this Nobel-prize winning classic is worth reading, to remind one of what “good writing” – written from the heart, without any artifice but with startling insight – really is in a world where one’s mind can be blunted with the over-hyped pap of too many current bestsellers.