I may have mentioned this in a blog post before, but my mother has the morbid (though appreciated) habit of, whenever a novelist dies, sending me a book by the late writer. A few weeks ago, Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing duly arrived on my doorstep. Having never read any Lessing before, and only really being aware of her for the hilarious footage of her being doorstepped after winning the Nobel Prize (worth a watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuBODHFBZ8k), it was a welcome gift.
This, Lessing’s first novel, is about the mental collapse of a woman isolated in the veld of rural Rhodesia (as it was then called) as she realises that she will never escape her loveless marriage to a failed farmer, and never lose her terror of the “natives”. It is a text primarily about race and race relations, and is pretty damning of the arrogance and self-importance of the British-descended white Southern Africans. Mary Turner and her husband are “poor whites” – a stain on the local landscape, a blot letting down and showing up all the rest of their race. For this is how every character – both black and white – seems to feel. That there is an intrinsic difference in the minds of those who differ on the outside, and when people do not, as it were, “know their place”, problems arise.
Mary and her “houseboy” Moses form an odd relationship – he sees her crying, he witnesses her humanity, and she is ashamed and disgusted with herself for letting this happen. She, despite clearly feeling repressed sexual attraction towards him, is unable to treat him with consistency, offending and confusing herself with each verbal/behavioural error that she makes. She is hypocritical, and this is what builds the novel to its climax, the climax which the book begins with.
Mary is murdered by Moses; the opening chapter consists of a neighbouring farmer being summoned to the disgraceful shack in order to speak to the police, but the rest of the text is in standard chronological order building up to this point. The pace, for what is essentially a novel about slow mental decline, is surprisingly fast – given the reader’s knowledge of the impending death, there is a constant to urge to look for signs that will explain the violence that is to come. This works in that it causes one to pay attention to the minutest detail in the relationship between the mistress and her servant. It is the key relationship in the text and, one supposes, the key relationship in Mary’s life. Moses is only seen when with her – the reader is unaware if he has a family or friends, because this is not a concern Mary has. Though she is unable to allow herself to care about him as a human being, she is also unable to convince herself that he is not one.
In terms of writing style, Lessing’s prose is clipped, rather terse, but pleasantly explorative. Her landscape descriptions are great, and the political positioning of the text (at least to my liberal eyes 60 years later) seems to be in the right place. The barriers built by the white characters are illusory, ridiculous and often non-sensical. This is a strong novel about a difficult topic. And if this was how she kicked off her career, I’m not at all surprised she won the Nobel. A good, serious, book.