Monday 30 December 2013

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

I haven't posted a book review recently, as I've been watching and writing quite a bit about theatre, not to mention the endless distraction of preparing for a family Christmas! This doesn't mean I haven't read anything, though; a teetering tower of books has accumulated, ready to review during this lovely interlude when the mad pre-Christmas dash is over, but a return to work in January seems deceptively far away.

I'm beginning with The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing because, of all my recent reads, this is the one that made a lasting impression. I don't know about you, but the announcement of Lessing's death last November jolted me into the realisation I have no opinion about her writing, for the simple reason I haven't read any of it. Simon at Savidge Reads felt much the same and launched a #DorisinDecember initiative. My book club settled on The Grass Is Singing, mainly because at only 206 pages long, it appeared the least daunting of her works.

The Grass is Singing, set in 1940s Southern Rhodesia, is Lessing's first novel and it may be short, but it sure knows how to pack a punch. The story opens with an announcement in the newspaper of a death on a remote farm; Mary Turner has been murdered by her 'native' houseboy Moses.

The Turners, Mary in particular, are widely regarded as misfits by neighbours like Charlie Slatter, first to arrive on the murder scene. For years they've shunned social engagements and struggled to make a profit from their crops, living like the 'poor white' Afrikaners who are despised almost as much as natives by the British colonial community. It's only the viewpoint of newcomer Tony Marston, that brings a sense of the establishment being more intent on closing down a potentially scandalous situation, than on seeing that justice is done.

Having given us the circumstances of the murder, Lessing then reaches back in time to tell the story leading up to it. This is Mary's story, beginning with her unhappy childhood in a remote South African dorp, an ugly cluster of buildings at the centre of a farming community hundreds of miles wide. Lessing's descriptions of Mary's surroundings evoke feelings of powerful oppression, such as the horrors a local store holds for a child:
It is always a low single-storeyed building divided into segments like a strip of chocolate, with grocery, butchery and bottle-store under one corrugated iron roof. It has a high dark wooden counter, and behind the counter shelves hold anything from distemper mixture to toothbrushes all mixed together. There are a couple of racks holding cheap cotton dresses in brilliant colours, and perhaps a stack of shoe-boxes, or a glass case for cosmetics or sweets. There is the unmistakable smell, a smell compounded of varnish, dried blood from the killing yards behind, dried hides, dried fruit and strong yellow soap.
This is no idyllic, all-purpose hub reminiscent of Ike Godsey's General Merchandise in The Waltons, but a hateful backdrop to Mary's poor and miserable childhood, with a drunken father and mother who 'literally pined to death'. But Mary does find happiness when she takes an office job in town and lives an unfettered, single life in a boarding house. Then, past the age of thirty, she overhears a friend's unkind remark which makes her feel she must marry:
Then she met Dick Turner. It might have been anybody. Or rather, it would have been the first man she met who treated her as if she were wonderful and unique.
Dick is a poor indebted farmer in need of a wife:
He began to like her, because it was essential for him to love somebody; he had not realised how very lonely he had been. 
There's a sense of foreboding as we journey into the emotional heart of this novel, knowing the outcome as we do. Dick's farmhouse is so basic there aren't any ceilings and the corrugated iron roof makes it unbearably hot. Again, Lessing's description brings home the overwhelming claustrophobia of heat in such a vast land 
...she went out to look at the sky. There were no clouds at all. It was a low dome of sonorous blue with an undertone of sultry sulphur colour because of the smoke that filled the air. The pale sandy soil in front of the house dazzled up waves of light and out of it curved the gleaming stems of the poinsettia bushes, bursting into irregular slashes of crimson.
Dick is a decent man with a visceral bond to his land. He treats his workers fairly by the standards of the day, but devotes any surplus cash to ill-fated money-making schemes, rather than installing the ceilings which would make Mary's life bearable. 

One of the many tragedies in this book is that Mary and Dick could have made a great team; their skills are complementary if only they'd managed to work together, rather than strip-by-strip tearing each other apart. Mary begins enthusiastically enough, making soft-furnishings and keeping chickens, but soon rebuffs the Slatters' attempts to socialise and treats her native workers with chilling savagery. The cycle of crop failures, the heat and noise of the cicadas and the grinding poverty all combine to wear her down:
Five years earlier she would have drugged herself by the reading of romantic novels. In towns women like her live vicariously in the lives of the film stars.
Her life changes again with the arrival of Moses, the latest in her long line of houseboys and one who has a strange hold on her:
...although he was never disrespectful, he forced her now to treat him as a human being; it was impossible for her to thrust him out of her mind like something unclean as she had done with all the others in the past.

Doris Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 but her family moved to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when she was five years old. The autobiographical nature of her writing has often been discussed, especially the way she draws on childhood experiences and her social and political concerns. Although she was first married and divorced at a young age, it's still remarkable that she wrote this forensic dissection of the disintegration of a marriage at the tender age of twenty-five. Lessing moved to London in 1949 to pursue her writing career and The Grass is Singing was published in 1950.

As well as an examination of loneliness, this book is a stark portrayal of racial tensions and the harrowing inequality at the heart of 1940s Southern Rhodesia, a society where those with black skin were regarded as lower than cattle. The Grass is Singing is a compact yet complex novel, combining intense individual scrutiny with bleak social comment, about a way of life which may now be largely reviled but was widely accepted the time.

Not always the easiest of reads, this book is so searingly written that it's spilling over with quotable paragraphs. It also has the rare ability to make you care about the fate of superficially unsympathetic characters. The Grass is Singing left me reeling, full of admiration for the power of Doris Lessing's writing and looking forward to a lively discussion with my book club.


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