The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
3 November, 2015
August’s book group choice by Kim was Doris Lessing’s debut novel published in 1950, The Grass is Singing. A Nobel Prize Laureate and author of many novels including The Golden Notebook, I had heard so much about Lessing and yet felt slightly afraid to read her.
The Grass is Singing is set in Southern Rhodesia in the 1940s and begins with the murder of Mary Turner by her black servant Moses. In a land where strict racial rules are the means by which the white colonisers maintain their control, any untoward issues that don’t fit in with white society’s ideas of how people should act is quickly and unsentimentally cleared away, untouched. Mary’s murder is cleared as one catalysed by greed. But what Lessing does so beautifully here is to go back in time to find out who Mary Turner was to see why she had to die. And what unravels is a tense, bleak tale of a woman, once happy in her independance and freedom, who is gradually stifled and suffocated by society’s expectations and petty rules.
Free at last from her poverty-stricken childhood, a young Mary is living a happy and carefree life in town, working as a secretary and living in a girls hostel where she is never without friends and things to do. She is happy to carry on in this way, having no need for a husband or a house of her own until she overhears her friends ridiculing her behind her back. This sudden shock instigates a paradigm shift in her world view and sets her on a course which she may not have otherwise chosen. She is nothing if not proactive and immediately changes the way she dresses and goes on several unsuccessful dates, making her unhappy and suspicious of other people’s motives. That is until she meets Martin Turner, up in town for the day, a shy, awkward young man who spends most of his time alone working on his farm. Although they feel no attraction to each other, nevertheless, Martin is lonely and Mary needs to get married, and so this happens before they get to really know one another. Mary is happy to leave the town that has soured and Martin is eager to start a family once he has made his farm profitable and has enough money. But life on a farm in the middle of nowhere is far from the life Mary ever envisioned for herself, as is the lack of money. Martin is kind, if not stubborn, but the evergrowing failures of all his ventures quickly grinds down her respect for him. Mary is also uncommunicative and cold and Martin soon realises that his idea of a warm family life may never materialise. And yet the two continue in this vein, Mary slowly succumbing to ennui and depression as the heat gets to her, ever relentless, and her encounters with the natives who work for Martin are fraught with suspicion and trouble. The two are bound together in their wretched house, isolated, and what happens is a slow disintegration of will.
Until Moses, one of Martin’s workers, comes to work for Mary in the house. His arrival acts as catalyst, suddenly awakening Mary out of her stupor and bringing up complex emotions that highlights the subtly fraught relations that exist between servant and master, family and friend.
And then there is Charlie Slatter, Martin’s neighbour and local kingpin who overseas the social and agricultural goings on in the area. He is the one whom they contact first when Mary’s body is found. He is the one organising and directing the police sergeant who arrives later. And he is the one who makes sure that no extra detail is leaked to the papers. For his duty is to keep the status quo and protect their own.
In The Grass is Singing, Lessing binds together a number of important issues; the segregation and treatment of the natives, the unspoken social rules from which you cannot veer and the limited roles within which women can exist in that time. For Mary, she was doomed if she didn’t get married, and she was doomed when she did. What is perhaps poignant is that ultimately both Mary and Martin aren’t exactly bad people. Martin is generally friendly towards his native workers, with a deep understanding of how things work in his country, if not his occupation. Mary starts off carefree, independant and happy, and probably her sole mistake is to get hitched without really thinking things through. What the the pair want are two different things, and because they are gauche and awkward at communicating, are like two cars just missing each other in the fog. Unable to really talk, they just keep diverging in thought and deed.
Lessing has created an incredibly nuanced yet striking novel. But there are so many questions which remain unanswered. What exactly was Mary’s relationship with Moses? What at first seemed as though it could have been a forbidden attraction turned out just to be fear. And yet, it was more than that. Charlie Slatter may have tried to tidy the murder as one committed by an angry and greedy servant, yet Moses’ feelings for Mary, although at the end seemed to be of power, had something more. What was it? Mary, though she needed Moses for her survival, much, much more than Martin, could never overcome her fear of him. And Moses, who knew he had power over her, didn’t leave because he knew she needed him. This strange, complex power relationship rings so true because it is pretty much the essence of relationships in its basic form. It stuns me to think that Lessing is able to convey this together with that of a marital couple, friends and neighbours to produce such a layered first novel. And leaving the central question unanswered may have been a stroke of genius. For what remains puzzling is precisely what will stay with you long after you’ve finished.
Lessing’s novel is nothing less than a novel about power in its many nuanced form. And she does this subtly and beautifully.