The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

“There is passion here, a piercing accuracy, a rare sensitivity and power…One can only marvel.”
– NEW YORK TIMES

Grass is Singing 2I’ve had this book stashed away on a shelf with several other titles by Doris Lessing for several months now. Then one or two weeks ago, acting on a random impulse I clicked on one of my favourite sites (Heavenali: the link is on the left-hand side of this very page)and found a review there which I read completely and then went and got out my copy. Simple as that!

The first chapter is titled “Murder Mystery” and the heading is followed by this short item from a “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. It is thought he was in search of valuables.”

It is suggested that most people would have read the short item, “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.”

“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 years, did not turn the page so quickly.”

“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.”

“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?”

This novel was Doris Lessing’s first and was published in 1950. It is set in Southern RhodesiaGrass is Singing 4 which was a British colony (now Zimbabwe) at the time of the story (1940s). It contains much about the racial relations between British settlers and the natives they employed and it caused a stir when it was published according to Wikipedia. The cover of the first UK edition is shown to the right. The book was made into a movie in 1981 and Dick Turner was played by John Thaw (Inspector Morse in television series) and Mary was played by Karen Black. I haven’t  tracked down a copy yet but I think it might be interesting.

Lessing herself  was born in Persia (Iran) October 22, 1919 and grew up in Rhodesia on a farm where her parents grew corn and tobacco. Her parents moved to Rhodesia in 1925. Their farming experience there was apparently not a successful one.They lived in something close to a mud hut but they had many books. Read more here.

Grass is Singing 3Mary Turner’s life is examined in considerable detail in the novel. A young Englishman by the name of Tony Marston had been engaged to run the farm for a few months because Charlie Slatter, the Turners’ neighbor, had made arrangements for Dick and Mary to go away on a vacation. Charlie had witnessed Mary’s deterioration and Dick’s on-going struggle with malaria and firmly believed that neither one of them would survive if things continued as they were. Slatter had made transportation arrangements and the Turners’ were to leave on the day the murder occurred.

Marston had discovered Mary’s body: “…he wondered how all this had begun, where the tragedy had started. For he clung obstinately to the belief, in spite of Slatter and the Sergeant (police), that the causes of the murder must be looked for a long way back, and that it was they which were important. What sort of woman had Mary Turner been, before she came to this farm and had been driven slowly off balance, by heat and loneliness and poverty? And Dick Turner himself – what had he been? And the native – but here his thoughts were stopped by lack of knowledge. He could not even begin to imagine the mind of a native.”

The trial was a mere formality but the answers to Marston’s questions are what Doris Lessing’s novel deals with and the outcome will leave you wondering. An impressive debut novel and a challenging read for anyone who likes to try and understand what actually happened.