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Set in South Africa under white rule, Doris Lessing's first novel is both a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and a beautifully understated social critique. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm work their slow poison, and Mary's despair progresses until the fateful arrival of an enigmatic and virile black servant, Moses. Locked in anguish, Mary and ...
Set in South Africa under white rule, Doris Lessing's first novel is both a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and a beautifully understated social critique. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm work their slow poison, and Mary's despair progresses until the fateful arrival of an enigmatic and virile black servant, Moses. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses--master and slave--are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion. Their psychic tension explodes in an electrifying scene that ends this disturbing tale of racial strife in colonial South Africa.
The Grass Is Singing blends Lessing's imaginative vision with her own vividly remembered early childhood to recreate the quiet horror of a woman's struggle against a ruthless fate.
By Special Correspondent
Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front veranda of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.
The newspaper did not say much. People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have.
And then they turned the page to something else.
But the people in "the district" who knew the Turners, either by sight, or from gossiping about them for so many turn the page so quickly. Many must have the paragraph, put it among old letters, or between the pages of a book, keeping it perhaps as an omen or a at the yellowing piece of paper with closed, secretive faces. For they did not discuss the murder; that was extraordinary thing about it. It was as if they had a sixth sense which told them everything there was to be known, the three people in a position to explain the facts said nothing. The murder was simply not discussed. "A bad business," someone would remark; and the faces of the people round about would put on that reserved and guarded look. "A very bad business," came the reply--and that was the end of it. There was, it seemed, a tacit agreementthat the Turner case should not be given undue publicity by gossip. Yet it was a farming district, where those isolated white families met only very occasionally, hungry for contact with their own kind, to talk and discuss and pull to pieces, all speaking at once, making the most of an hour or so's companionship before returning to their farms where they saw only their own faces and the faces of their black servants for weeks on end. Normally that murder would have been discussed for months; people would have been positively grateful for something to talk about.
To an outsider it would seem perhaps as if the energetic Charlie Slatter had traveled from farm to farm over the district telling people to keep quiet; but that was something that would never have occurred to him. The steps he took (and he made not one mistake) were taken apparently instinctively and without conscious planning. The most interesting thing about the whole affair was this silent, unconscious agreement. Everyone behaved Eke a flock of birds who communicate--or so it seems--by means of a kind of telepathy.
Long before the murder marked them out, people spoke of the Turners in the hard, careless voices reserved for misfits, outlaws and the self-exiled. The Turners were disliked, though few of their neighbors had ever met them, or even seen them in the distance. Yet what was there to dislike? They simply "kept themselves to themselves"; that was all. They were never seen at district dances, or fetes, or gym-khanas. They must have had something to be ashamed of; that was the feeling. It was not right to seclude themselves like that; it was a slap in the face of everyone else; what had they got to be so stuck-up about? What, indeed! Living the way they did! That little box of a house--it was forgivable as a temporary dwelling, but not to live in permanently. Why, some natives (though not many, thank heavens) had houses as good; and it would give them a bad impression to see white people living in such a way.
And then it was that someone used the phrase "poor whites." It caused disquiet. There was no great money--cleavage in those days (that was before the era of the tobacco barons), but there was certainly a race division. The small com-munity of Afrikaners had their own fives, and the Britishers ignored them. "Poor whites" were Afrikaners, never British. But the person who said the Turners were poor whites stuck to it defiantly. What was the difference? What was a poor white? It was the way one lived, a question of standards. All the Turners needed were a drove of children to make them poor whites.
Though the arguments were unanswerable, people would still not think of them as poor whites. To do that would be letting the side down. The Turners were British, after all.
Thus the district handled the Turners--in accordance with that esptit de corps which is the first rule of South African society, but which the Turners themselves ignored. They apparently did not recognize the need for esptit de corps; that, really, was why they were hated.
The more one thinks about it, the more extraordinary the case becomes. Not the murder itself; but the way people felt about it, the way they pitied Dick Turner with a fine fierce indignation against Mary, as if she were something unpleasant and unclean, and it served her right to get murdered. But they did not ask questions.
For instance, they must have wondered who that "Special Correspondent" was. Someone in the district sent in the news, for the paragraph was not in newspaper language. But who? Marston, the assistant, left the district immediately after the murder. Denham, the policeman, might have written to the paper in a personal capacity, but it was not likely. There remained Charlie Slatter, who knew more about the Turners than anyone else, and was there on the day of the murder. One could say that he practically controlled the handling of the case, even taking precedence over the Sergeant himself. And people felt that to be quite right and proper. Whom should it concern, if not the white farmers, that a silly woman got herself murdered by a native for reasons people might think about, but never, never mentioned?The Grass Is Singing
Posted March 28, 2005
Posted August 5, 2003
The world of Dick and Mary Turner is one I would not want to visit in person, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate what Lessing has accomplished here. About half way through this relatively short novel, I simply could not stop turning the pages. This is both a masterful study in character (and its dissolution) and a trenchant social commentary. Since reading this book a few weeks ago, I've passed it on to two other readers who've had an almost identical reading experience. This is the sort of novel that would work extremely well in a book discussion group. Much to ponder and debate.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2001