Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
First published in the UK by Michael Joseph in 1950.

One of my WorldReads from Zimbabwe

My 1950s book for the 2014-15 Bookcrossing/Goodreads Decade Challenge

How I got this book:
Bought at a charity shop

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository : from £6.99 (PB)
Wordery : from £6.29 (PB)
Waterstones : from £8.99 (PB)
Amazon : from £2.51 (used PB)
Prices and availability may have changed since this post was written

The Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing’s first novel is a taut and tragic portrayal of a crumbling marriage, set in South Africa during the years of Apartheid.

Doris Lessing brought the manuscript of ‘The Grass is Singing’ with her when she left Southern Rhodesia and came to England in 1950. When it was first published it created an impact whose reverberations we are still feeling, and immediately established itself as a landmark in twentieth-century literature.

Set in Rhodesia, it tells the story of Dick Turner, a failed white farmer and his wife, Mary, a town girl who hates the bush. Trapped by poverty, sapped by the heat of their tiny brick and iron house, Mary, lonely and frightened, turns to Moses, the black cook, for kindness and understanding.

A masterpiece of realism, ‘The Grass is Singing’ is a superb evocation of Africa’s majestic beauty, an intense psychological portrait of lives in confusion and, most of all, a passionate exploration of the ideology of white supremacy.

I chose The Grass Is Singing as I don't think I had read any Doris Lessing before and was pleased to find that I love her writing style! This novel confronts several major issues within a relatively small number of pages yet never feels preachy and is an amazing achievement for a first publication.

Our heroine, Mary, is a free-spirited young white city woman, earning her own wage and not subject to marital or family ties. She has overcome a poverty-stricken childhood, but her chance overhearing of acquaintances gossiping about her make Mary believe that her life is incomplete and would be better with the freedom of marriage. She ignores her own happiness in favour of the beliefs of others and pretty much jumps on the next man who doesn't get out the way quickly enough! Richard Turner is a poor white rural farmer described as living in isolation although he has black workers with whom he communicates every day, but those men and their families can not be suitable as friends and Richard also shuns the companionship of neighbouring white families.

After their marriage, Mary joins Richard on his farm, initially happily as she goes to work improving the shack in which he lives. However, there is little money so this task is quickly completed and it is at this point that Lessing's story begins to draw in its claustrophobic threads. We know from the first chapter that Mary has died and Richard is mad, presumably with grief. Now we start to discover why. Perhaps Mary's terrible treatment of a succession of black houseboys, the result of institutionalised racism, has led to murder; perhaps she cannot stand the months and years of isolation; perhaps the sheer heat of living in essentially a tin box is to blame; perhaps Richard can no longer bear her criticism of his poor farming decisions which results in their downward-spiralling into ever deeper poverty.

Each of Lessing's themes - racism, sexism, isolation, not belonging, poverty - are beautifully and powerfully portrayed. The Turners' predicament is completely believable and I pitied the couple intensely while at the same time being exasperated at them for being so unable to drag themselves away from their self-imposed prison. Even as hope is forced upon them towards the end of the book, we already know it will be too late and the poignancy of this is almost unbearable. The Grass Is Singing is a wonderful novel and, while I look forward to reading more of her work, I think this debut will have been very hard for her to beat.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Doris Lessing / Contemporary fiction / Books from Zimbabwe


  1. I love Doris Lessing's writing! I actually had to read a couple of her books when I was at uni, and I was shocked by how much I loved them. The books I've read by her are so richly layered and evocative, and it sounds like this one is too. Your review is making me want to pick this one up ASAP!

    1. I've read a couple of hers now and this was by far the best. Incredible that it's a debut novel!

  2. first I love how you read books set ALL OVER the world.
    Second.. I'll have to rad this book to know for sure the writing is 5-star
    One thing I know for sure is that YOUR writing is!
    "A masterpiece of realism, ‘The Grass is Singing’ is a superb evocation of Africa’s majestic beauty, an intense psychological portrait of lives in confusion and, most of all, a passionate exploration of the ideology of white supremacy."
    great review Steph. I love how you write your reviews!

    1. Thank you Daniela :-)
      Though sadly I can't take credit for that quote, but this is an amazingly powerful and very readable novel.