After the sad news that Doris Lessing passed away earlier in the year, and seeing everyone’s incredibly positive thoughts on her works I started thinking about all the authors, including Doris, who I hadn’t read but really felt I should have. Along with Nathan Dunbar, a lovely bookseller across the ocean, we decided that we would read The Grass is Singing, her first novel from the 1950’s, and have a read-a-long of sorts in the form of #DorisInDecember. I have to admit though I was rather daunted about the task ahead.
The Grass is Singing starts with the announcement in a local paper of the shocking news that on one of the farms in Ngesi, Southern Rhodesia, there has been a murder. Mary Turner has been murdered by her and Richard Turner’s houseboy, one of the natives. The mystery at the heart of the article, and indeed The Grass is Singing, is why this has happened. What adds to the interest from the start is that it isn’t the police that have taken over the investigation but the neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter and, as we learn in the first chapter, Tony Marston, the new English farm hand, thinks there may have been more to the incident than meets the eye. Even if Moses, the houseboy, has admitted to the murder what led him to committing it, and what was the relationship between himself and Mrs Turner?
The newspaper did not say much. People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have.
And then they turned the page to something else.
But the people in ‘the district’ who knew the Turners, either by sight, or from gossiping about them for so many years, did not turn the page so quickly.
Considering that The Grass is Singing is relatively slight at 206 pages, there is so much going on within it that I left the book feeling that Doris Lessing (who was only 25 when she wrote this) was an utter genius. The big story at its core initially seems to be the one about race and the racist attitudes of society in what is now known as Zimbabwe. The way that ‘natives’, as they were called, are treated is horrendous and we get to see this as we follow Mary once she marries Dick and joins him on his ramshackle farm. Which leads to another subject of white poverty, but I am ahead of myself already.
Really is it Mary, who we initially see as the victim of the piece, whose story we follow. As a young girl she grew up on the farms in Southern Rhodesia and hated it. She hated the way her father drank and behaved, she hated her mother’s shrill voice and low tolerance of the staff and after the bliss of boarding school gets away to a town as fast as she can. Once alone she blossoms through her late teens and early twenties yet by thirty she is still not married. Mary sees nothing wrong with this until she overhears so called friends laughing and gossiping about her. Deflated she looks for a husband to escape the life she loved but now believes is tainted; only her escape route is a completely miserable one.
Five years earlier she would have drugged herself by the reading of romantic novels. In towns women like her live vicariously through the lives of film stars. Or they take up religion, preferably one of the more sensuous Eastern religions. Better educated, living in the town with access to books, she would have found Tagore perhaps, and gone into a sweet dream of words.
Instead, she thought, vaguely that she must get herself something to do. Should she increase the number of chickens? Should she take in sewing?
Mary is bored. While she likes her husband, Dick, she also thinks he is rather ineffectual, there is a wonderful yet rather sad sequence of Dick’s attempts to make them money with bee’s, then pigs, then turkeys, then bicycles. They are living in extreme poverty, which even his neighbours – the vile Slatters – can’t bear to see as apparently there is nothing worse than seeing poor white people almost living in the squalor black people do, which depresses her and she longs for town or just escape. Instead she becomes angry and embittered, hating the landscape (which Lessing gives a wonderful sense of menace) and the weather (Lessing making the descriptions of heat utterly oppressive) and going slowly mad. Of course anger needs a focus point to be unleashed on and soon Mary does this with her husband but then more and more so with her servants.
The next day at lunch, the servant dropped a plate through nervousness, and she dismissed him at once. Again she had to do her own work, and this time she felt aggrieved, hating it, and blaming it on the offending native whom she had sacked without payment. She cleaned and polished tables and chairs and plates, as if she were scrubbing skin off a black face. She was consumed with hatred. At the same time, she was making a secret resolution not to be quite so pernickety with the next servant she found.
Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.
When old settlers say, ‘One has to understand the country,’ what they mean is, ‘You have to get used to our ideas about the native.’ They are saying, in effect, ‘Learn our ideas, or otherwise get out: we don’t want you.’ Most of these young men were brought up on vague ideas about equality. They were shocked for the first week or so, by the way natives were treated. They were revolted hundred times a day by the casual way they were spoken of, as if they were so many cattle; or by a blow or a look. They had been prepared to treat them as human beings. But they could not stand out against the society they were joining. It did not take long for them to change. It was hard, of course, becoming as bad as oneself. But it was not very long that they thought of it as ‘bad’. And anyway, what had one’s ideas amounted to?
The Grass is Singing is not the easiest of reads. The characters are often far from likeable (I haven’t gone into the vileness of the Slatter’s but they are quite a creation) yet they all have a truth to them no matter how awful, it is the fact you know this was happening that makes them all the more scary, along with the situation of course. There is also the dense atmosphere of the book which rightly so is menacing and cloying but sometimes can feel like slowly wading through mud, yet again this is apt. Then there is Mary, a character on the edge of madness which is hard to watch both emotionally knowing the ending as you do and also because she reflects all the varying sides of society, the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet it is for all these reasons that The Grass is Singing is a book which needs to, and must be, read. It is a small but perfectly formed melancholic masterpiece that will leave you with a huge amount to think about – a true reading experience.