on January 27, 2004
Doris Lessing's "The Grass is Singing" opens with the death of Mary Turner. How could Mary's life have ended with such a tragic fate? As the reader progresses through the novel, he discovers Mary's insufferable existence, her life destroyed by a disastrous marriage to a farmer, Dick Turner. Mary is forced to live in a rural environment in South Africa for which she is ill-suited. Furthermore, Mary's relationship with her husband rapidly deteriorates as she realises that Dick is unable to manage the farm successfully and they are constantly on the verge of bankruptcy. A truly superb novel, tragic and moving to the very last line. Mrs Lessing's wonderfully captures Africa's majestic beauty, the difficult relationship between the whites and the Natives. The psychological portrait of her heroine is exceptionally intense.
on April 10, 2008
So I hear Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in literature, and of course, lemming that I am, I have to read something by her. Did her award affect my reading of this book? Probably. Nonetheless, I found myself literally holding my breath in parts. This certainly wasn't because of the plot--there's not a lot of plot, here, but there really doesn't need to be. The Grass is Singing is a novel about relationships, psychology, and the way the environment permeates them. Our heroine is so human that I hated her and loved her at the same time. The nuances between her and her husband comprised the best literary depiction of marriage that I can remember reading. Ever. I hate to gripe on other people's reviews, but one describe the novel as dull, and although I suspect this attributable the lack of plot, it is not dull. It's nuanced, complex, and eerie. Not dull.
on January 11, 2008
Because of several particular details early on, it was during her "happy years" that I began wondering if the subject of sexual abuse would enter the picture. The first detail was her aversion to intimacies, whether in friendship or love. Her happiness was brought about by everything being in order and in its place. No messes at work, no messes in relationships. Lessing describes her ability to remain detached from deep human contact as "aloofness", but when it came down to physical contact, it was utter "repulsion". Lessing also makes several vague statements about her relationship with her father, such as the fact that after her mother died, he finally left her alone. Also, there is a statement on page 39 that I thought might have been referring to her parents, but it seems intentionally vague.
"She felt sentimental at weddings, but she had a profound distaste for sex; there had been little privacy in her home and there were things she did not care to remember; she had taken good care to forget them years ago."
Mary is also unable to take on the physical appearance of a woman, although she doesn't realize it. In some ways, she is completely detached from her womanhood, almost refusing to acknowledge it (such as her 30th birthday). She feels herself successful because she feels she now fits comfortably and happily into popular society. When she hears her friends speaking badly of her, her "success" is absolutely smashed to pieces right in front of her and she discovers that she is profoundly different than the people around her. Even though she was happy, other saw something terribly wrong with her.
Once she marries, her irrational feelings begin to bloom (as if they've been triggered). Many of her reactions don't fit the crimes. Any positive feelings she has towards Dick (pitying him when she sees his childish qualities) are always crushed by her loathing of him as a man. Its so strong that he sees it right off the bat. She has put herself in a position that is so similar to her childhood; desolation, lack of control, unwanted physical contact. And so she takes out her confused misery and blind fury on the easiest targets; the locals. They represent two things that frighten her the most:
1- All things earthy and physical. Breast feeding, nakedness, procreation.
2- Helplessness and poverty.
She loathes in them what she loathes about her own life.
She is a boiling pot of emotions that are all jumbled together and meaningless in her mind. Even when life is not as complicated as will eventually be, she has no idea of herself. Her self-reflection is an inch deep and she blames her impulses from one second to the next on false causes. Her mind is ripe for destruction when she meets a native who has the power to seduce her affections in a way that her husband never could. In the beginning, her own emotional and (I would guess) physical reactions, are both too wonderful and horrid for her to bear. It is never clear whether she loathes this man with every fiber of her being or if she cannot live without him. Her feelings towards him bring out nightmares involving humiliation by her father and memories of male smells she has tried to forget. She confuses Moses (as well as her emotions towards him) with her father.
When her love and hate finally place her at the brink of destruction, she succumbs to one and has a numb peace for a short time.
Even when Tony comes to her "aid" and she verbally rejects Moses, she cries to Tony that "He is finally gone," as well as, "You made him leave!".
My theory is that as a human being, she was annihilated on a very core level before she even left her childhood home. It seems to me that every emotion she had and every decision she made was based on her scars of sexual abuse and when she is finally faced with a real attachment, its a double whammy because of the fact that her obsession is a native; someone she was bred to not regard as human.
on November 20, 2002
When a colonial woman with a not unconventional upbringing who is not the luckiest person, decides to go for broke and marries as she is getting on, what could happen?
The anatomy of the master servant bond is one of the main themes of this book. Before welfare systems, all cultures had master servant relationships as the rich employed servants. The master servant relationship was stark in colonial Africa. The masters had to know the natives so that they could get work out of them and a certain amount of loyalty but the masters in Africa also had to keep the natives down, almost like animals, so that they could remain the masters and the servants could remain servants.
The natives of course as servants, could also benefit as underdogs as all servants do, being loyal, friendly and pleasing but not above their masters. Mary in the book, starts with preconceptions about her relationship to the Africans, and as things get from bad to worse, she if faced with a mistress servant relationship going horribly wrong.
Her husband is a fool, tied to the land and unable to organise his ambitions or get anything out of his farm. She knows better, but luck is never on their side. One actually has a respect for Mary and her penetrative intelligence, but the book describes how this very human intelligence with its stiff attitudes (she marries when she understands people are sniggering about her behind her back, in any case, women at the time did not have much choice in this), breaks down, collapses utterly.
Harrowing, hot hot weather with the dry beauty of Africa described by a veteran. This is a book that unravels in your hand and is a literary masterpiece for a first novel.
Lessing describes herself as a colonist and is known to be unconventional and vaguely feminist. She displays a keen erudition of the issues, language and sights of her once native Africa - and brings it home.
on January 21, 2001
Though she is a renowned author, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, generally thought to be her best work, I found garbled and depressing.
'The Grass is Singing' was written when she was much younger and more stable, but it is still depressing, dealing as it does with the appalling treatment of the blacks by the whites in Africa. The prejudice and cruelty Lessing evokes ring true,as does the characterization of Mary. Personally, I found it impossible to empathise or even sympathise with her, and wasn't exactly upset at her fate. It is Moses one feels sorry for.
Lessing is able to be at once detached and involved in the lives of her protaganists and is only judgemental by implication. The collapse of Dick and Mary's relationship is well delineated and inexorable. Her descriptive powers are impressive - Africa comes through very strongly and one can almost smell the dust and the rain and the blossom. A good read.
on December 1, 2011
This is the first and only book by Ms Lessing I have read. I read it because she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Great literature is often neither simple nor easy. It should have an impact on the reader and leave a lasting impression. This book does that, but it isn't a pleasant read. It is an amazing book that is one of the most painful books I've ever read. The reader is not exactly sure how to feel toward the two major charachters, Mary and Dick Turner. Pity? Contempt? Sorrow? Anger? And the setting is so alien to Americans today: the horrible treatment of the natives, the unique physical geography, the odd plants and animals, and the weather (unbearably oppressive heat). I started the book in June and read over half of it in two days. But then I couldn't pick the book back up. Yet it haunted me. I kept thinking about the characters and setting. I needed to know why things happened. Then five months later I picked it back up and finished it over two more days. I'm glad I did. I can see why Ms Lessing won her Nobel.
Anyone who has had a painful, failed marriage will find this book very difficult. It is the chronicle of the eventual destruction by marriage of two humans, who create a situation that leads to their own undoing even though they know ways out but choose not to take them. Rather than either work together to make things better or leave each other to start anew, they chain themselves together and suffer together. And anyone who has dealt with or experienced mental illness will also find this book challenging, esp. as Mary starts to unravel at the end. Not a pretty sight nor a pleasant journey, but a remarkable description of how a woman loses herself completely and leaves her humanity behind.
The novel opens with the newspaper entry for a murder. So immediately the reader knows this book chronicles tragedy. The first chapter, about a tenth of the book, starts in the present and we meet all the players who will then populate the rest of the book as Chapters 2-11 then go back in time and lead things up to what we already know ends up happening in the beginning. One thing that makes it hard for the reader is that most of the characters are seriously flawed in one or more important ways and any sympathy one feels initially for a particular character is eventually overcome by events or changes in the character.
Anyone reading this should know some of the history of the author and the setting, as the book is heavily autobiographical. Published in 1950, the book is set before and during WW II in then British-run Southern Rhodesia, later to become white-ruled Rhodesia and now the Mugabe-run Zimbabwe. Lessing, born in 1919, grew up in Rhodesia. She left home young, married young, and left her husband when still young. Today's reader will find the contempt shown by the white colonial settlers toward the natives unpleasant. How can so many men and women be so dismissive of so many merely on account of skin color? But that was the reality of the time and place, both there and elsewhere, including the USA.
One flaw for me is that we don't really get an understanding of Moses, the native field worker turned housekeeper, who interacts with Mary about two-thirds of the way into the book. While the omniscient author gets deeply into the heads of all the other characters, Moses' mind and heart mostly remain a mystery to the reader.
I would recommend anyone who reads this also read Graham Greene's novel, A Burnt-out Case, published in 1960, near the end of the then Belgium Congo. Set in a missionary-run leper colony, Greene, like Lessing, makes the time and place come alive. The oppressive heat and humidity, the disease, and the white colonizers. But his equally tragic work has a more redemptive quality for both the protagonist and the reader. Lessing's psychologically graphic book can take a toll on the unprepared reader.
on September 8, 2003
I believe the intent of Doris Lessing is not to incite sympathy in readers, but to bring across a poignant tale of human conflicts. Doris Lessing tries to convey the complexity of human emotions, that in reality it is hard to draw the line between right or wrong. I personally feel that The Grass Is Singing is by far the most human novel I have ever read.
on July 27, 2008
This novel was published in 1950. As a picture of white society in Rhodesia just before/during World War II, its narrow codes of behavior and its fearful, hateful treatment of the natives, it was enlightening. As a description of a relationship between naive, flawed people and how their marriage slowly went wrong, it was absorbing. As a description of something that developed between the wife and a houseboy, though, in the last 40 pages it wasn't sufficiently clear for me to grasp exactly what occurred. I couldn't understand how far the relationship developed, why she knew what was going to happen, or why the houseboy changed the way he did. Were there limits in those days on what it was possible to write about a relationship that crossed the "color bar"?
Toward the novel's end, having brought these two characters together, the author must've intended to shift to a style that expressed the wife's breakdown, leaving things vague enough so that readers could project their own interpretations. But after the nuanced realism up to then, which showed so meticulously the main characters' expectations, weaknesses and frustrations, the stylistic change near the end felt jarring.
The author hinted that the wife's problems with men and intimacy could be traced to her relations with her parents, especially her father. And that she understood finally it was her mistake to rely on others to help her escape her problems, that she should've taken responsibility for her own life. It was interesting that the author, having given her some degree of self-awareness -- which put her far ahead of the book's other characters -- then had her break down and die. Instead of, say, escaping from her marriage and Rhodesia.
on January 5, 2008
As I post this review, I have read three of Lessing's novels from three time periods in her career. This is her first novel. It lacks the strong feminine perspectives, dialogues, analysis, and commentary of her later works. It is an interesting novel set in southern Africa on a small farm.
Doris Lessing (1919 - ) is the 2007 Nobel prize winner in literature. She has a score of novels and many other works. Her complex novel The Golden Notebook (1957), the conventional novel The Grass is Singing(1950), and The Summer Before The Dark (1973) are considered to be her representative works. I have read those three. The Golden Notebopok is a long and difficult read, not as bad as Ulysses, but not a simple read. The other two are more ceonventional and much shorter novels,
The book jacket on my copy had this note: "Mary Turner, a frustrated white woman, and Dick, he ineffectual farmer-husband, confront Moses, the virile and enigmatic black servant."
Having read The Grass is Singing (1950), her very first novel, I found that it is not as described on the book jacket, nothing at all. Actually It is not a romance novel that involves a black man and a white woman. I liked the book. It is a straight-forward novel and she uses a structure similar to a detective novel. In chapter one the crime is revealed to the reader as we might have in a detective novel, and then the author takes us back in time about 10 years and tells the story of the characters up to the time of the crime.
Lessing describes the personality of the female protagonist, a farmer's wife, in great detail, but it is a far simpler personality than we see in some of Lessing's other characters - in her works that come later. There is no self discovery by the woman, other than she does not like her husband and her situation. She is mostly just depressed. Without revealing too much about the plot, the story is about a young woman living on an isolated farm in Africa, trapped in a marriage in which she has little control over.
What makes the present book a worthwhile read is the setting in Africa. This is a good read and a mostly conventional novel.
on July 28, 2003
I first heard of this book while listening to a BBC broadcast in my car, on the way to work. Portions of the book were read and I found the story most interesting. I decided to purchase the book, and read it as fast as I could, eager to get to the parts I had heard on the radio. I was disappointed with the cover- somehow I had purchased an older, yellowed version of the book, with a cover that looked similar to the covers on Harlequin romance novels (yuck). While the author does a great job of depicting life in Africa during this time period, the story is lacking somewhere. At first, there is growing concern for Mary, the main character; she is a frail and odd creature, not completely sure about who or what she is supposed to be; the reader empathizes. Afraid of men and love, she agrees to be the wife of a farmer in the heart of the countryside because she seems to think it's the right thing to do. Although her husband seems to[destroy] everything he touches, including Mary's determination to be a good wife on a poor farm, it is Mary's struggle to keep her senses and wits about her that makes the story delightful. She does seem to lose it eventually, but I am not completely sure why. She tries to medicate herself with various tasks but that doesn't seem to help...why? Her interesting and mysterious interactions with the African househelp is (I feel) a good depiction of the way things used to be when White settlers colonized the greater parts of Africa, but it is the twist on this thread of the story that is puzzling. I am not sure what Moses' purpose is... does he love her? Does he hate her? Were they intimate? If she loves him why does she fear him? These answers were not answered satisfactorily, and it is maddening to wonder and question what happened.