Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing’s first novel is a short but intense story about the disintegration of a woman’s life under the unforgiving heat of the Zimbabwean sun. Covering racism in colonial Africa, the expectations of marriage and the limits that society places on women, The Grass is Singing is one of the most memorable debuts of the mid twentieth century.

Starting with the aftermath of the murder of Mary Turner by her black housekeeper, Moses, the novel looks back on the events that led to her death. Sketching out her Mary’s childhood, Lessing portrays a woman haunted by her youth and her mother’s relationship with rural poverty and her alcoholic father:

For thousands of people up and down Southern Africa the store is the background to their childhood. So many things centred around it. It brings back, for instance, memories of nights when the car, after driving endlessly through a chilly, dusty darkness, stopped unexpectedly in front of a square of light where men lounged with glasses in their hands, and one was carried out into the brilliantly-lit bar for a sip of searing liquid ‘to keep the fever away’... And later, when she grew older, the store came to have another significance: it was the place where her father brought his drink. Sometimes her mother worked herself into a passion of resentment, and walked up to the barman, complaining that she couldn’t make ends meet, while her husband squandered his salary in drink. Mary knew, even as a child, that her mother complained for the sake of making a scene and parading her sorrows: that she really enjoyed the luxury of standing there in the bar while the casual drinkers looked on, sympathetically; she enjoyed complaining in a hard sorrowful voice about her husband. “Every night he comes home from here,” she would say, “Every night! And I am expected to bring up three children on the money that is left over when he chooses to come home.” And then she would stand still, waiting for the condolences of the man who pocketed the money which was rightly hers to spend for the children. But he would say at the end, “But what can I do?” I can’t refuse to sell him drink, now can I?” And at last, having played out her scene and taken her fill of sympathy, she would walk away across the expanse of red dust to her house, holding Mary by the hand...

Her father isn’t a violent man, just a hopeless soak:

That is not to say that he drank himself into a state of brutality. He was seldom drunk as some men were, whom Mary saw outside the bar, frightening her into a real terror of the place. He drank himself every evening into a state of cheerful fuddled good humour, coming home late to a cold dinner, which he ate by himself.

As an adult, Mary moves to the city and shies away from marriage but when she overhears people gossiping about her at a party she impulsively ties the knot with an indebted and incompetent farmer, Richard. Inheriting her mother’s misery, she festers with resentment, trapped in a loveless marriage. The heat and the lack of money slowly grind her spirit, although it is her attitude to the native workers that finally dooms her.

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