My first ever Doris Lessing novel, I had seen reviews of this novel a few months ago and it has been on my radar to read, so I was quick to grab this bookcrossing copy when it came my way. I think I have been rather scared of Doris Lessing, someone I used to work with gave me a copy of The Golden Notebook a few years ago. It remains on the highest shelf in the living room unread; I try to pretend I have forgotten I have it. I thoroughly enjoyed The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing’s first novel, but I remain a little afraid of The Golden Notebook.
Drawing heavily in her own experiences of growing up in Rhodesia, Doris Lessing’s first novel is a dark social commentary of that delicately balanced society, and a bleak portrayal of the unravelling of a damaged woman. The novel opens with the news report of a murder, a white woman; the wife of a poor farmer has been apparently attacked and killed by her black houseboy Moses. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, we meet Tony Marston an English assistant recently arrived at the farm, Charlie Slatter – their nearest neighbour and the bereaved husband Dick Turner, behaving erratically in the face of his wife’s slaughter. Slatter and Marston both seem peculiarly unmoved by Mary’s death; appearing to regard her as something hateful. The remainder of the novel tells the story of that woman, Mary Turner and her husband Dick in the long dull years of disappointment and frustration that lead up to Mary’s death.
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.”
In the years before her marriage – when she is already over thirty, Mary lives a happy independent life in town, working in an office, living in a women’s hostel where she enjoys the gossipy camaraderie of other younger women, going out to the cinema and sundowner parties. Mary is a troubled young woman, as a thirty year old woman she still feels and dresses very much like a young girl, she seems desperate to retain some vestige of her vanishing youth, unaware of the ridiculous figure she is becoming. Devastated when she overhears friends talking about her, Mary is given a harsh wake up call. Persuaded that she should marry someone despite her aversion to sex, Mary meets Dick Turner, a poor, ineffectual farmer himself keen to settle down.
In marrying Dick, Mary swaps her old life for a small shabbily furnished house boiling under a metal roof, on a failing farm, miles from nowhere. Having had an unhappy childhood in a small isolated house alongside the railway, living on the farm soon seems to Mary that she has slipped back to those unhappy days that she had once fled. That farm life is not the life for Mary becomes quickly apparent, while her ineffectual and overly optimistic husband loves his land, Mary has no interest in the farm, and the long hot tedium soon begins to tell.
“Loneliness, she thought, was craving for other people’s company. But she did not know that loneliness can be an unnoticed cramping of the spirit for lack of companionship.”
Neither Dick nor Mary are able to fit themselves into the local white community, Mary doesn’t even want to try. Dick is quietly despised by his neighbour Slatter who covets his land, and nicknamed Jonah by the local community for his recurrent bad luck on the farm, whatever he plants fails, whatever livestock he experiments with fails too, if other farmers get rain, the rain misses his land. For the whites in Africa the black community are another species – they barely acknowledge the farm workers as human, and Mary’s treatment of her husband’s workers is particularly dreadful, her mismanagement of the servants leading to them leaving quickly. When Dick starts falling ill with bouts of malaria, Mary is reluctantly forced to step in to keep an eye on things, looking into the accounts she begins to see just how bad things are on the farm, and what a mess they are in financially. However Mary is simply unable to manage the workers, she tries to control them with shouting and docking their measly pay, but she is just simply very frightened of them, and the workers know it. It is during this time, when Mary first encounters Moses, a meeting which ends with Mary striking him with a whip.
Trying to take more of an interest in the farm, with suggestions and making money from raising chickens, Mary hopes that one day she can escape the misery of the farm. When Moses turns up at the house, as Mary’s new houseboy, he slowly starts to have a strange and disturbing effect on Mary. Mary has always seemed to be teetering on the brink of a dark depression, but now with the enigmatic presence of Moses in the house Mary starts to unravel. She is both strangely repelled and attracted to Moses, terrified of him; he haunts her dreams, and silently compels her to draw closer to him as he helps her care for Dick in his latest malaria episode. This very odd relationship is peculiarly disturbing, and difficult to describe, with Mary seemingly able to almost prophesy her tragic end.
I found Doris Lessing’s writing to be wonderfully evocative; the characterisation is strong, complex, very believable and truly remarkable for a first novel. In The Grass is Singing Lessing lifts the lid on the deeply unpleasant society of white supremacy that existed in Rhodesia and South Africa at this time, set against an unforgiving African agricultural landscape. However the novel is also an intense psychological study of people trapped by their lives. I can’t really say that any of the characters in this novel are in any way likeable, yet maybe they are more interesting for that, certainly the novel is very compelling. I well have to read more Doris Lessing one day – including the dreaded The Golden Notebook.