1 June 2017

Review #610: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”

----F. Scott Fitzgerald

Doris Lessing's, the Nobel Prize winning debut book, The Grass is Singing revolves around a youngish woman who after marrying a South African white farmer, and within a few years, looses herself and becomes a victim to immense loneliness as she realizes her husband's constant failure both in his farm as well as in their shared marital life, and that's how her remorse grabs her soul and makes her extremely critical towards her black servants treating them with distaste and hatred, ultimately paying a heavy price for her racial discrimination towards her servants.


Set in South Africa under white rule, Doris Lessing's first novel is both a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and a beautifully understated social critique. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm work their slow poison, and Mary's despair progresses until the fateful arrival of an enigmatic and virile black servant, Moses. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses - master and slave - are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion. Their psychic tension explodes in an electrifying scene that ends this disturbing tale of racial strife in colonial South Africa.

The Grass Is Singing blends Lessing's imaginative vision with her own vividly remembered early childhood to recreate the quiet horror of a woman's struggle against a ruthless fate.

A small town girl like Mary, who grew up in an unbalanced household, is extremely head strong and self-reliant and because of her parent's divorce has made her grow a distaste for marriage in general. But at the age of 30, Mary finds herself liking the prospect of marriage and a marital life when she meets a white farm owner named, Dick Turner. Soon after the marriage, Mary realizes the pangs of marrying a man like Dick who is an unreliable and a struggling farmer, whose farm is falling down bit-by-bit despite of his labor and his hard work. And failure and a monotonous married life consume Mary into a state of extreme detachment and loneliness as Dick spends less time with her and more time in the farm due to extreme climate conditions. But the arrival of a black house boy labor named Moses, changes that state of Mary into a mixture of both hate and extreme attraction towards this slave boy. One time, Mary treats Moses with utmost anger and hatred, and on another time, she feels a strong attraction towards this native man. That which finally, leads her towards her own tragic end in the hands of that very same black boy Moses.

The book is so much more than just a novel about a lost married couple meeting their tragic fate because of their actions, meaning getting murdered by a black man because of their ill treatment towards them. Through the simple narration, the novel will provoke the thoughts of the readers and will force them to ponder about slavery, apartheid laws and how the society plays a major influence in Mary's downfall. This book is so tender and intense both at the same time that I often found myself reeling to the edge of my seat with horror, shock and curiosity to find out how it happens and why it happens, because the author already reveals in the first chapter itself about the murder of Mary Turner by her slave houseboy. So the focus entirely remained on the why part and for the first time ever, it felt like a crime happened, yet I'm much more interested in learning about the life of this married couple.

Right from the very first moment itself, the story gripped me and held a tight psychological hold over my mind until the turn of the very last page. Although the author was not capable of subtlety in this book, yet she penned it in a unique and a compelling voice. The narration is engaging yet heart-rending and often tense owing to a suppressing atmosphere that the author flawlessly portrays through her eloquent words. And with an articulate prose and moderate pace, the story sways in a gradual motion until the last breath of Mary left her body.

The characters, which are inspired heavily from the author's own life, are brilliantly developed, and layered with their flaws and thought trains. The central character, Mary Turner, reflects an era during the early years of Apartheid in South Africa through her constantly deteriorating demeanor. Both the society and the implicit laws made her a remorseful housewife, whose husband took no notice towards her or their marital life, instead presenting her with house slaves to ease her pain in managing the household. Both Mary and Dick are so lost in their own worlds that they barely realized the bridge it created between their marriage. The cracks of which are suffice enough to influence the ruination of their social stature, their farm business and so their mental balances. Even the character of Moses whose equal hatred towards his master and his wife is well explored and depicted through the pages of this book.

In a nutshell, this is a must read novel for one and all to explore the unspoken tragedy a white married couple due to Apartheid and its inhuman laws.

Verdict: A story with a strong underlying message about revenge, racism, marriage, depression and societal flaws.
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Author Info:
Both of her parents were British: her father, who had been crippled in World War I, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. In 1925, lured by the promise of getting rich through maize farming, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Like other women writers from southern African who did not graduate from high school (such as Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer), Lessing made herself into a self-educated intellectual.
In 1937 she moved to Salisbury, where she worked as a telephone operator for a year. At nineteen, she married Frank Wisdom, and had two children. A few years later, feeling trapped in a persona that she feared would destroy her, she left her family, remaining in Salisbury. Soon she was drawn to the like-minded members of the Left Book Club, a group of Communists "who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read." Gottfried Lessing was a central member of the group; shortly after she joined, they married and had a son.
During the postwar years, Lessing became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she left altogether in 1954. By 1949, Lessing had moved to London with her young son. That year, she also published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, and began her career as a professional writer.
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