Bionic Jean's Reviews > The Grass Is Singing

The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing
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The Grass is Singing is Doris Lessing's first novel, published in 1950. It is a savage and stark indictment of South Africa's apartheid system. It is set in what was formerly Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and concentrates on Rhodesian white culture with its racist and prejudiced attitudes. The system of gross racial injustice dominates both the society and this story.

The novel is told in flashback. At the beginning of chapter one there is a brief news report of the murder of a white woman plus her assailant's arrest and the purported motive for the crime. The rest of the book details the events leading up to this, with Mary Turner, the victim, as the main character. It is many-layered, the characters being not only individuals in their own right, but also "types" indicating the strata of complex society in South Africa at that time in history. The local culture is not rich and the humiliating results of poverty are always apparent.

Before the long flashback, however, we have chapter one, which is particularly hard to read. The attitudes by each character, whilst varying in degrees, display such incipient arrogance and complicit acceptance of both the corrupt regime and its hidden implications, that the reader is all too aware that these views are only the tip of the iceberg. It is a manipulative and exceptionally well crafted piece of writing.

One character, Tony Marston, has recently come from England. He is portrayed as having the typical views of a newcomer to the country, with misguided views of equality. He will soon learn the ways of South Africa, the others think indulgently. And these ways vary from treating the "natives" (and yes, an even worse "n" word is also used) as less than human, the "masters" having an unwavering conviction of their entitlement to maltreat, bully and beat these workers with a "sjambok", even sometimes until death if they deem it necessary. Such a sorry event would be passed off with a shrug. White women were taught from a very early age to live in fear of the natives, that as a group they were untrustworthy. The shades of attitude vary, the other end of the spectrum being that the natives were alright if you knew how to handle them. They knew their place, and the master knew his.

The repugnance felt by modern readers towards this whole spectrum of views is compounded by the fact that these are overt and explicit. This is the system of apartheid. This is the status quo. Far worse lies underneath, and this introductory chapter indicates with hints, veiled expressions, subterfuge and things left unsaid, that there are are additional ugly factors at work. The recently arrived English character is a useful hook for the reader to identify with, at this point. He knows something is badly amiss and hates the arrogance, intolerance and prejudice that he sees in neighbouring farmers such as Charlie Slatter. He also knows that plenty of people in his position give up trying to farm under such conditions, and are viewed by those who stay as not hard enough - not up to either the unforgiving land and weather, or the imposed social regime either.

The novel itself does a thorough job of describing how each character has become what they are. Mary and Dick were two sad characters whom the reader sees very early on should never have married. For reasons that become clear on reading the novel, Mary should never have entered the farming community. Dick for his part, was a struggling farmer who wanted a family, but did not know how to choose one. The neighbours variously made successes of their lives, by their own terms. They all had a view of the "homeland" (England) even though some had never stepped foot in it, having been born in South Africa. And they all had a view of solidarity, of the way things should be, and that they had no connection with the "natives", who came from their "kraal", except as their servants or workers. They were only concerned with what the natives could do for them, viewing it as their inalienable right.

The book is solidly set in its location. The natural strength and hostility of the South African landscape, the all-pervading poverty, the white townships, "ugly little houses stuck anyhow over the veld, that had no relationship with the hard brown African soil and the arching blue sky", the unbearable heat of the corrugated iron and brick houses aggravating the desperations and tensions of the characters, are all conveyed very well. It is a finely judged and balanced book with a good narrative flow, ahead of its time, written by an author who went on to write exemplary works. So why does it not get 5 stars. Have you perhaps deduced why from this description?

There are no black viewpoint characters. Not one. Even Moses, who was arrested in the first chapter, is not fleshed out; his actions are merely reported without any comment, insight or indeed any given motivation. The reader has to infer a resentment against the corrupt system, and that Mary is his personal representative of it. We are told that he came from a mission school, just as we were told briefly where the original old servant Samson came from. The author describes as a group where the natives come from, and how far they travel in search of work. Doris Lessing allows them to vary in looks, in attitude to work and other superficial indications. But they are not filled out in anything like as much depth as the white characters.

Dick Turner, one of the more sympathetic white main characters, feels aggrieved, thinking of of the South African government as being "under the influence of n------lovers from England." And the newcomer Tony Marston, "had the conventionally "progressive" ideas about the colour bar, the superficial progressiveness of the idealist that seldom survives a conflict with self-interest."

The author repeatedly castigates her white characters by implication, for lumping all "natives" together. Yet she does precisely that herself in this novel. In addition to the lack of characterisation of non-whites, Doris Lessing talks about "the genus native". At another point she refers to, "a native... conveniently endowed by nature with the ability to walk long distances without feeling fatigue." Is it deliberate? Is it an attempt to make the point about one culture alienating another even stronger? If so I think it misfires.

The ending of the book is beautifully written. Mary's gradual mental deterioration into a complete breakdown is very convincing, and the reader is unsure what is real and what is in her mind. There is an hypnotic and oppressive feeling in this final chapter. Clearly we are invited to feel that the ending was inevitable - that the characters of Moses and Mary are puppets, or victims of their own doom. Yet nothing earlier in the novel had indicated any feelings on Moses' part, except for a brief moment of surprise and pity, when Mary had begged him not to leave, back before her depression took hold. But at the end of the novel, Lessing says of Moses, "what thought of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say." Why, exactly? This idea of an enigmatic native "type" is not only inaccurate but very distasteful.

It is a brave book for its time. And it is extremely well written, by an author who went on to be a Nobel prize winner. But this is far from an exemplary work.




My Personal Glossary of terms:

Veld - wide open rural spaces of Southern Africa. It is used in particular to refer to flatter areas or districts covered in grass or low scrub, especially in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

Vlei - a shallow minor lake of an intermittent nature. Seasonal ponds or marshy patches where frogs and similar marsh dwellers breed.

Kopje - a small isolated hill.

Kraal - a homestead and usually included a simple fenced in enclosure for animals, fields for growing crops and one or more thatched huts. Afrikaans and Dutch word (also used in South African English) for an enclosure for cattle or other livestock.

Kitchen Kaffir (dated - now offensive) - Fanagalo, a Zulu-based pidgin language.

Compound - Closed labour camp of migrant male workers from rural homes in Bantustans or Homelands to the mines and jobs in urban settings generally. One of the major cogs in the apartheid state. Flash points for unrest in the last years of apartheid.

Sjambok - official heavy leather whip of South Africa, sometimes seen as synonymous with apartheid.

Mashonaland - a region in northern Zimbabwe.

Lobengula - the second and last king of the Ndebele people, usually called Matabele in English. Migrant workers from there.
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Reading Progress

June 25, 2013 – Shelved
February 4, 2014 – Started Reading
February 4, 2014 –
page 32
14.55% "Powerful writing from time of deep political and institutional injustice in South Africa's history. There are undercurrents of betrayal corruption, conspiracy and complicitousness already in this first chapter, The attitudes - both hidden and overt - are staggering to modern perceptions. And there's already been a murder on the first page. What an astounding start to Doris Lessing's first novel."
February 4, 2014 –
page 32
14.55% "Powerful writing from a time of deep political and institutional injustice in South Africa's history. There are undercurrents of betrayal, corruption, conspiracy and complicitousness already in this first chapter. The attitudes - both hidden and overt - are staggering to modern perceptions. And there's already been a murder on the first page. What an astounding start to Doris Lessing's first novel."
February 6, 2014 –
page 235
100%
February 6, 2014 –
0.0% "235/292"
February 7, 2014 –
0.0% "Lest I forget the definitions:\n VELD - wide open rural spaces of Southern Africa. It is used in particular to refer to flatter areas or districts covered in grass or low scrub, especially in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.\n VLEI - a shallow minor lake, mostly of an intermittent nature. Seasonal ponds or marshy patches where frogs and similar marsh dwellers breed. \n KOPJE - a small isolated hill"
February 7, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Rowena (new) - added it

Rowena Great review, Jean! Funny thing is many countries in Southern Africa use Afrikaans words in everyday conversation.

I just learned about Fanagalo last year, interesting, isn't it? We had a cook when I was growing up who worked in the mines in South Africa and he could speak it.


Bionic Jean Thank you Rowena; I do especially value both your comments and your personal insight :) And yes, I was surprised by the Afrikaans words and the crossovers.

As you no doubt can tell I found this a very difficult read.


message 3: by Rowena (new) - added it

Rowena Oh yes Jean, it does sound like an extremely difficult read. I was actually unaware that Zimbabwe had experienced such racism too. It's crazy to think that Zimbabwe only gained independence in 1980!


Bionic Jean It is indeed shocking to realise that these things are well within living memory.


Tracey This sounds like a very powerful read Jean and as ever your review is insightful without giving things away.


Bionic Jean Thank you, Tracey :)


Bionic Jean What a lovely thing to say, thank you. I'm pleased you enjoyed it, Cheryl :)


Bionic Jean I will note here a couple more significant passages from the book, which I did not include in my review, but do not want to forget:

"When a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip."

"Although he was never disrespectful, he forced her, now to treat him as a human being. It was impossible for her to thrust him out of her mind like something unclean, as she had done with all the others in the past."


message 9: by Sara (new) - added it

Sara Sometimes a difficult read is a necessary one. I keep pushing this book back, but I think I need to be brave and read it. It is difficult sometimes to put things into perspective of the writer and the times when we find so much of the thoughts and behavior reprehensible.

Your review is so well done, fair and even-handed, that it makes me feel that I really must read this with your reactions in mind.


Bionic Jean I will be interested to hear your thoughts when you have, Sara! And many thanks for your kind words.

I have actually read this twice, once being many years ago. How I wish I had written down what I thought of it then! We can never really be sure if we remember correctly.


message 11: by Deanna (new)

Deanna Fantastic review, Jean!!!


Bionic Jean Thank you so much Deanna :)


message 13: by Sara (new) - added it

Sara Jean wrote: "I will be interested to hear your thoughts when you have, Sara! And many thanks for your kind words.

I have actually read this twice, once being many years ago. How I wish I had written down what ..."

One of the things I love about GR is that I can go back and see what I was thinking at the moment that I read something.


Bionic Jean Yes :) It's a great aide-memoire!


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