It’s at times when I’m faced with reviewing a book like this that I do wonder why I took up blogging! What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said? Can I do the book justice or will I end up just saying something silly? Mind you, I did feel the same when approaching classics like “Anna Karenina” and “Brothers Karamazov”, but then I reminded myself that in the end I’m simply recording my personal response to a book – and hoping the odd reader or two will find that interesting! So, time to approach “The Grass is Singing”.

grass

As I mentioned previously, Simon at SavidgeReads came up with the lovely idea of #DorisInDecember and I imagine a lot of tweeting has been going on about this! However, as a non-tweeter my comments are going to be here, and so on with the great Doris’s first novel. TGIS was published in 1950 and Lessing apparently brought it with her to England when she left South Africa. The novel opens with a newspaper report on the murder of white farmer’s wife Mary Turner, who has been killed by the black houseboy Moses, and goes on to explore the immediate aftermath of the murder. We meet Mary’s husband Dick, now completely mad (as a result of the murder maybe?) plus neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter plus Tony Marston, a young man who has come from England to manage the Turners’ farm. But it is immediately clear that all is not as straightforward as it seems. Slatter and Marston in particular respond strangely to the murder, seemingly angry with the victim. It appears that nobody is particularly surprised that tragedy has struck the Turners as they did not fit in with the divided society which existed in South Africa and didn’t ‘play the game’. Something unspeakable has been going on at the Turners’ farm and nobody wants to say what it was.

We then flash back to the start of Mary’s life and it is clear this is not so much a whodunnit as an exploration of the whys of the case, and a psychological study of the effects of living in such conditions on sensitive people. Mary grows up in the bush, hating the land and escaping from her family as soon as she can to work in the nearby city. She builds herself a happy enough life, socialising, working as a secretary, living independently and enjoying her freedom. But Mary is a troubled, undeveloped woman – scarred by her childhood, disliking sex and attempting to maintain some kind of eternal youth.

“If she had been left alone she would have gone on, in her own way, enjoying herself thoroughly, until people found one day that she had turned imperceptibly into one of those women who have become old without ever having been middle-aged: a little withered, a little acid, hard as nails, sentimentally kindhearted, and addicted to religion or small dogs.”

She is shocked out of her tranquillity when she overhears friends talking about her and is panicked into looking for a husband. However, Mary is temperamentally unsuited for marriage and becomes quite desperate to find a mate – so that when she encounters farmer Dick Turner, on one of his occasional visits to the city, and he is captivated by a false image he gains of her, she rushes into a partnership that is doomed. Her experiences as a child, where she witnessed something unspecified, have given her an aversion to the physical, so that her wedding night is never going to be a success:

“It was not so bad, she thought, when it was all over: not as bad as that. It meant nothing to her, nothing at all. Expecting outrage and imposition, she was relieved to find she felt nothing. She was able maternally to bestow the gift of herself on this humble stranger, and remain untouched. Women have an extraordinary ability fo withdraw from the sexual relationship, to immunize themselves against it, in such a way that their men can be left feeling let down and insulted without having anything tangible to complain of.”

Dick Turner is one of life’s failures, nicknamed “Jonah” by those who know him. His farm scrapes by, just about making a living, but he is beset by constant disasters – rainy or sunny periods at the wrong time, crops that fail, workers that don’t work properly, an inability to plan properly and make the farm succeed. He dreams of a successful farm, wife and child, but the reality is a harsh and extreme climate, a wife who really doesn’t want to be there and grinding poverty. A constant trial to Mary is the heat, and the fact that they live in a shack with a tin lid which exacerbates this. Nothing Dick can do brings success and Mary is bored out of her mind (literally). They do not fit in with the local white community and of course the black community is beyond the pale – to even acknowledge any of their workers as a living human being is unthinkable.

But Dick starts to have periods of illness and Mary has to take control of the farm for a while. She temporarily comes to life here, intelligent enough to see exactly where her husband is going wrong. She has the knowledge to run the farm but is unable to deal with the workers in the appropriate way – in fact, her responses to them are complex; while trying to assert her control, she actually has a mortal terror of them. When Dick is well, she attempts to change the way the farm is run, to save them from ruin – but only so she can escape from the bush and the farm and her husband. Things deteriorate between the two of them, and then events spiral further out of control with the arrival of the houseboy Moses, who has a strange influence over Mary….

I wasn’t sure how I would respond to TGIS, as it’s not necessarily about the sort of subject matter I would choose to read. However, Lessing’s writing is remarkable; she quickly establishes a wonderfully vivid landscape with believable characters and draws you in completely. The portrayal of the South African society under Apartheid is chilling – it’s quite horrific to observe how one race can behave in such a vile way that it completely dominates another to the extent that it doesn’t even recognise them as human. Much of this is personified by Charlie Slatter, the hardened farmer who pretty much represents the white race in the book – cold, callous and uncaring, he is intent on maintaining the status quo at all times, the delicate balance that allows the system to continue and where any deviance from the norm is frowned upon. Lessing shines a very bright light on apartheid, and what she shows is not pretty.

As for the relationship between Mary and Moses, I admit I’m still trying to work this out in my mind. It does seem initially odd that a women like Mary, hating and terrified of the natives, would form any sort of friendship with her houseboy (and I certainly wouldn’t have described it as her turning to him for comfort as the blurb on the back of my edition states). However, there’s an old song that says “There’s a thin line between love and hate” and maybe it could be applied here; certainly, the one incident of tenderness we see between Mary and Moses, witnessed through the eyes of Marston, is shocking simply because it is so unexpected. Lessing hints that relationships between black and white South Africans are more common than we might think, but seems to be deliberately vague about this one and its extent. What we do glean is that Dick is aware of it, though refusing to acknowledge it, and maybe this contributes to his final madness. And certainly Mary has become extremely unhinged at this point and their relationship has reversed, so that Moses has become master and Mary servant. Charlie Slatter, on a rare visit to the Turners’ farm, is perceptive enough to realise that the dynamic is wrong somewhere, and tries to take action to avert disaster. However, he is too late to do this, and Mary almost seems to be sleepwalking towards her destiny…

South African farmhouse by Brett Harvey http://www.panoramio.com/photo/6825422

South African farmhouse by Brett Harvey
http://www.panoramio.com/photo/6825422

If for nothing else, TGIS would be memorable because of its striking images – the bush, the farm, the little tin-roofed shack, the great blue dome of the sky that Lessing refers to more than once.

“In the early mornings, when Dick had gone to the lands, she would walk gently over the sandy soil in front of the house, looking up into the high blue dome that was fresh as ice crystals, a marvellous clear blue, with never a cloud to stain it, not for months and months. The cold of the night was still in the soil. She would lean down to touch it, and touched, too, the rough brick of the house, that was cool and damp against her fingers… The sunshine dazzled and glittered, but held no menace; this was not the sun of October, that insidiously sapped from within.”

But what comes back to the fore time and again is isolation. Dick and Mary are isolated within their marriage; they are cut off from the local white landowning society; Mary is separated from the town life she loves, and she is ultimately detached from reality. Over and over Lessing reiterates her loneliness and isolation and it was this element that surprised me a little, in that I found many echoes of the only other book of hers that I’ve read, “The Golden Notebook” (if you can have echoes of the future). It’s a while since I read the latter, but I recall it focusing very much on the inner psychology of the main character and her detachment from reality. Mary is ostensibly in a very different setting from 1950s London, but her character seems to be suffering from the same fracturing as Anna Wulf in TGN – and as this was Lessing’s second novel it could be seen as a continuation. As I’ve said before, it’s often easy to conflate a writer and their character without justification. However, I was lucky enough to catch on the BBC this week the repeat of the “Imagine” documentary on Lessing from a few years ago; and it seems clear to me from this that she drew on her own life for material, particularly her childhood in the landscape of South Africa and the relationship with her mother. (The documentary may still be available for a little while on the iPlayer for those in the UK).

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I ended up absorbed and loving this book. Lessing’s writing is of a rare quality; her portraits of inner life are exceptional; her descriptions of the landscape of South Africa are stunning and her characters memorable. I definitely want to read more of her work – thanks Simon for setting up this readalong!