Dan Sandman

33: The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

In Books, Fiction on 16/08/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Grass Is Singing by Doris LessingMy father recently purchased an internet radio which allows us to access thousands of radio stations from around the world. Searches can be made by location (e.g. Australia) and genre (e.g. Bluegrass) which makes it relatively easy to find new stations. Another feature of the radio is the ability to search for podcasts by topic. It was this feature that lead to my mother hearing a BBC World Service interview with Doris Lessing about her classic début novel The Grass Is Singing. Having heard about my interest in African books, my mother enthusiastically recommended that I listen to the author being questioned, which I did.

After hearing the elderly author talk about her work, I dashed to two libraries in search of the book. To my surprise, both libraries had several books by Lessing but not her first. And so, desperately wanting to get started, I headed to Primrose Hill Books where I found a slim and sustainably green copy. The cover has an almost plastic like quality to it, a sure sign that my choice of book is apparently making a difference.

Now, to talk about about this brilliantly written story. The novel is set in Southern Rhodesia and was published in 1950 after Lessing travelled to England. It follows the tragic story of Mary and Dick Turner: a poor married couple who nonetheless rule over a large number of black workers on a farm. Mary, who starts out working in a town office, marries Dick as a result of social pressure. Dick, a farmer who is useless at making money, is forever dreaming that next year things will be better for Mary. Dragged down by poverty, depressed by the ceiling-less house in which the couple live, Mary spirals deeper and deeper into a serious depression with tragic consequences.

Unhappy, poor and bored by farm life, Mary Turner shows great cruelty towards the black workers. She is given license to dehumanise her subordinates by white supremacist ideology: the horrifyingly racist ideas that justified attacks on human rights in Southern Africa. When the owner of the neighbouring farm Charlie Slatter intervenes in a failed attempt to support (or profit from) the Turner’s crisis, Lessing illustrates the need for successful white farmers to support failed white farmers who have ‘let the side down’.  This action is necessary because it supports the belief, underpinning 1940’s Rhodesian society, that black people are inferior to white people. Long before the servant Moses is introduced into the unhappy home, the reader is given a sense of impending doom.

The Grass Is Singing is a bleakly dark portrayal of pre-independence Zimbabwe. Its uncompromising approach delves into gloomy psychological territory which is enhanced by the theme of post-colonial racism. In the 1950’s, Lessing’s book would have raised many uncomfortable questions. She was covering important new ground, writing elegant prose and using the power of the story to make political points. Great literature – and I would call this such – is a vehicle for expansive thought, detailed discussion and enjoyment.

Essential reading.

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