I am terrible at writing reviews of anything. I can tell you if I enjoyed a book, and I can tell you about what it make me think about. You’ll never find me discussing the plot because, mostly, that doesn’t interest me. However, I do feel the need to try writing about Doris Lessing‘s “The Grass is Singing.”
Published in 1950 “The Grass is Singing” is the story of Mary Turner, a woman living in Rhodesia during the late 1940s. The primary focus of the novel is the racial politics between whites and blacks, as well as the utter and absolute mundane nature of Mary’s life in poverty married to an unsuccessful farmer.
It starts with the murder of Mary in the first chapter with each subsequent chapter a flashback until we reach the murder. We are shown Mary’s childhood and life before she met her husband. We are shown daily life on the farm, and we are given an overall impression of Mary’s horrible attitude towards black people and towards her husband’s farm. It can be said that Mary and her story are not sympathetic to modern readers.
Neither, I suspect, was it a sympathetic tale for most readers in 1950s England and America.
But that’s not the point of this book. Not every story has to be conflict driven with likeable characters. Doris Lessing’s first novel shows a real command of language which allows us to forget many of the commercial crutches that lesser writers are forced to rely on. (She would later go onto to win the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature.) This novel is an expression of literary realism. The sole focus of “The Grass is Singing” is an exploration of Mary’s life and death with no diversions into magical realism and no attempts at humour.
It is not an enjoyable book. It is not a light read. It is not escapism.
It is, however, compelling and fascinating. It is also depicting a society far more alien than most science fiction novels.
“The Grass is Singing” is alien because it shows a society which from our privilege position in a world after decolonisations utterly abhorrent to contemporary opinion. It is an honest snapshot of a time. It makes no attempt to justify or to denounce the actions and thoughts of the characters in the novel. It lets us do that.
I would not suggest this book to readers expecting instant gratification. What “The Grass is Singing” provides best as an experience is a carefully written window into a radically different place in human history.