The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the acclaimed first novel of Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing and it's every bit as good as its hype. Written in the 1940s when she was living in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), it's a brutally honest look at how white farmers treated the African natives while slowing becoming debased themselves. One is treated to lines like this: ". . .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."
This is one of the key lines to understanding the novel. Brutality and convention are used to cover up personal weakness. Convention preys especially hard on the female protagonist, a fun-loving and superficial young woman who one day overhears her friends laughing at her behind her back because she's still not married. Desperate to be accepted, she says yes to the first man who asks, an incompetent farmer who brings her to his farm to live in squalor. The beauty of the African landscape and the harshness of its sun are both drawn beautifully, as is the slow deterioration of the main characters. The couple have no other family, no friends, no real contact with the outside world. Even World War Two is a vague rumor. The miserable wife, slowly going insane, has an unthinkable relationship with the "houseboy" that leads to a final, inevitable end.
What a first novel! Incredibly rich prose carries a terrifying portrait of people destroying themselves through their own frailty and misplaced pride. It's no wonder Lessing went on to be famous. It's a grim read, though. Now I'm going to pick up something light!
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