Book Review: The Grass is Singing

Genre: Fiction

Stars: 3/5

Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.

I selected this title for the February prompt in The Uncorked Librarian’s Around the World challenge for a book set in South Africa. I hadn’t read any titles by Doris Lessing but she was a fairly prolific author who lived in South Africa and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her writing, so thought I’d give this one a go.

This book is mostly a character study of three people: Mary who is the product of an unhappy childhood and a woman who thinks she is living a contented life in the city until she overhears some callous remarks made by two “friends” at a party that force her to confront the fact that she’s living a very empty life; Dick, the farmer she marries on an impulse, who is scraping a living out of his farm; and Moses, the Black man who is hired as their cook/house servant on the farm from their local labor pool.

There is limited plot in this book, although the main driver of the story is told in the first chapter of the book, which opens with Mary being found murdered on the front porch of the farm house. The book then jumps back in time to introduce us to the three main characters and the few other supporting characters that feature in this story. None of these characters is particularly likeable, although I can feel sympathy for all of them, as they all have had life experiences and made bad choices that brought them to the conclusion of this chapter in their lives. Both Mary and Dick are the products of dysfunctional families, neither of whom had parents who treated them with any love, and they are not able to understand each other at all. Moses is struggling under the yoke of colonial Africa’s white rule, where he is a second-class citizen (not even really a citizen – his status as an object throughout most of the book is underscored by the moment when Mary finally sees him as another human being).

I really struggled with this book. I think the fact that it’s a bit dated in how it was written (it was originally published in 1950) made it more difficult for me to appreciate it. Where I felt most connected to the story are the passages that Lessing writes about the South African landscape – the heat and the rainy season, the color of the dirt, the shimmering colors of sunlight on leaves, and the rippling wind as it moved through the grass. There is, of course, much to be learned from the understated description of relationships between these white people and the native peoples who were already inhabiting this land, but who were relegated to a place of complete nothingness by the whites, and I’m glad I read this book for the historical perspective. There is, however, no real story of the native people told here. Moses’s point of view is never presented, nor is that of any of the other Black characters (who are all very minor ones) in this story. The result is an unbalanced presentation of this story, and made it difficult to understand his motives and certainly to understand who he was as a person within this narrative.

I will also note several trigger warnings including racism/racial slurs and violence, so be aware of those if you decide to pick this title up.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Grass is Singing

  1. This sounds like an interesting story—though I find it hard to read books that start with the death of a main character and then go back in time to tell the story of “how this happened” without any fantasy elements to hint that there might be a way to change that fate. It’s a neat concept and sometimes it’s done really well, it just has always left me with a bad feeling before the book even really gets started.

    1. I can completely understand that. This book is vague… very vague… about many things, including the details of her murder, but also the details of her relationship with Moses. There are hints and sort of subtle undercurrents, but I was left confused about a lot of the specifics. (Not that this is necessarily to say – go read this, you’ll enjoy it – but just most of the details about her murder are left unresolved, at least for me.)

      1. Oh interesting. I’ve usually seen it be a more detailed thing… kind-of a way to have the main character die at the end without having to show the actual death, but all of the reasons for it are present. I don’t think I’ve seen this vaguer version before.

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