* Prices may differ from that shown
The Grass is Singing was the first novel to be published by Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing. The book is set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in southern Africa during the 1940's. My lasting memory of the book is the oppressive, scorched earth which, with all it's vastness and boundless space, managed to consume its inhabitants with a steady, seething despair.
The protagonist, Mary, spends part of her life living as an independent woman in the city but for various reasons marries a farmer and moves away from the comforts of urban life. The result is the slow decline of her sanity and the loss of her compassion. Her situation isn't helped by the fact that her husband isn't able to sort out their home in such a way that would enable them to deal with the suffocating heat. He is a kind man who is concerned about the land and treats it with a respect that isn't apparent in workings of the other farmers but while their wealth grows Mary and her husband continue with their harsh unabating struggle.
There is a horror to reading this novel, a horror that under similar circumstances you too could end up as wretched as Mary. It is a compelling book and a study into human nature and how it copes or is unable to cope with adversity
Doris Lessing is an author that I have heard of, but until I read this book, I had no idea what sort of books she wrote. She has certainly had a fascinating life; born to English parents, she lived in Iran until she was five, before moving to Zimbabwe, where she spent her formative years growing up on a farm. The Grass is Singing, first published in 1950, was an international success and her work continues to be reprinted. I was deeply impressed by this book and am only sorry that I did not discover her work before.
The story focuses on Mary Turner, the wife of a farmer, who is found murdered on the porch of her home. No-one is really surprised or particularly upset; she is well-known in the area for keeping herself to herself and for treating the local staff badly. After her body is found, we are taken back to her younger days and slowly discover what happened to her.
Marys childhood was largely unhappy. Brought up by parents who ran a store in a farming community, her father was a drunk and her mother bitter and twisted. Mary was delighted to leave home and get a job in the city. With a wide circle of friends, she had no desire to marry until she reaches her thirties and her friends start to treat her as odd because she is still single. When Dick Turner asks her to marry him, she agrees and goes to live on his farm, where her life completely changes.
You might be forgiven for thinking that this is crime fiction. However, this is not really the case. We know right from the beginning of the book who killed Mary, and there are few doubts that he was responsible. The mystery is in finding out why the murder took place and how Mary turned from being a fun-loving woman into a cynical, over-bearing tyrant.
As a character, Mary is particularly well-drawn. She is the focus of the story and her past and feelings are covered in great depth. I constantly switched from feeling sympathy for her to despising her. She does have a hard life. She marries a man that she doesnt really love in order to fulfil her friends expectations of her. Yet her husband is a struggling farmer who lives a very solitary lifestyle and after initial attempts to make the best of her life, Mary realises that her only chance of happiness is to escape. Her only acquaintances apart from her husband are the servants and as she has been brought up to look down on the natives, her relationship with them is very stilted. Although I didnt always approve of her behaviour, I could understand why she acted the way she did and I thought that she was outstandingly and touchingly described.
Her husband, Dick Turner, is a different cup of tea. He is obsessed with the land that he has bought, but despite his best efforts, he struggles to make a go of it. His relationship with his wife is difficult; he finds it hard to understand her conduct and doesnt always appreciate the position that his wife is in. It is not hard to feel sorry for him, although his lack of mental strength does sometimes drive the reader mad.
I see two particular threads to this book. One is psychological it looks at the mental suffering of a human being pushed to the limits of his/her ability, particularly when without friends with which to share problems. The other thread is racism. Mary has been brought up to despise native Africans and her constant proximity to the servants puts her in a real dilemma. However, although Lessing describes some situations that made my blood boil and it is clear that she also despises colonialism, yet she doesnt blame Mary for her feelings; rather it is the fault of society and politics at the time that caused these problems. I thought this was very cleverly balanced. A third thread, although not so obvious, is the position of women in society, particularly in the way that Mary is virtually forced into marriage because of other peoples opinions.
Lessings first hand knowledge of living on a farm in South Africa shines through in this book. The land, the characters, the farming are all vividly described and I could really see the images that she was trying to share with the reader. The book is beautifully written. There is no pretentiousness; the language used says what it needs to, yet Lessing still maintains her own style.
The only possible disadvantage is that the ending, for reasons I cant explain without giving it away, is not entirely satisfactory in that not all the ends are tied. However, I actually saw this as an advantage, because it kept the book on my mind for a long time after I had finished it.
In case you hadnt already worked it out, I loved this book. Doris Lessing is well-established as a literary giant and well she deserves to be. I look forward to reading more of her work. Highly recommended.
The book is available from play.com for ₤5.59 for the paperback version. Published by Flamingo, it has 208 pages. ISBN: 0586089241
Set in Rhodesia, this is the story of Dick, a failed white farmer and his wife, Mary, dependent and disappointed. Both are trapped by poverty, and in the heat of the brick and tin house, hemmed in by the bush, Mary finds herself seeking solace in the arms of the houseboy.