Africa, Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing

The-grass-is-singing

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 208 pages; 2013.

The Grass is Singing, originally published in 1950, was Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing‘s debut novel. It brims with tension and shimmers with insight into race relations, colonialism, marriage and rural life in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

Murder mystery

This astonishingly confident book opens in unconventional, some might say brash, style, in the form of a newspaper story by a “special correspondent”:

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.

The first (shocking) chapter charts what happens immediately following the discovery of the body — a muddled confusion of white colonial types acting as judge, jury and executioner. But then the narrative takes an interesting twist and what starts off as a murder mystery becomes the story of how the woman came to live in the area several decades earlier.

The woman — Mary — was once bright, young and independent, living a relatively carefree life in the city. But then, with the clock ticking, she succumbed to social convention and got married, despite the fact she had never felt the need to have a partner and was frightened of sex (in today’s parlance we would probably describe her as “asexual”). Her husband, Dick Turner, is a struggling farmer, who whisks her away to the bush, where she is expected to live a life of rural isolation in a shabby “shack”, running the household and managing the black servant who cooks and cleans for the couple.

This is a shock to Mary’s system, a town girl used to leading a busy work and social life, who must now spend a lot of time alone, in the bush, where the heat is unbearable and her living conditions impoverished. She only sees her husband at breakfast and supper (he spends the intervening hours out in the field running the farm) and she struggles to cope with managing the houseboy, whom she abuses and treats with disdain:

She had never come into contact with natives before, as an employer on her own account. Her mother’s servants she had been forbidden to talk to; in the club she had been kind to the waiters; but the ‘native problem’ meant for her other women’s complaints of their servants at tea parties. She was afraid of them, of course. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be. In her childhood she had been forbidden to walk out alone and when she had asked why, she had been told in the furtive, lowered, but matter-of-fact voice she associated with her mother, that they were nasty and might do horrible things to her.

Unfortunately, she can’t seem to control her temper and fires a succession of houseboys, one after the other. This frustrates Dick, who bemoans her lack of consideration and tact, and wonders if something is wrong:

What was the matter with her? With him she seemed at ease, quiet, almost maternal. With the natives she was a virago.

But this works both ways, for Mary wonders what is wrong with Dick, whom she soon realises is hopeless with money and hopeless at farming. When she sticks her nose in to help him at one stage, she reaps success, but later, for some inexplicable reason, she gives up and a deep-seated ennui sets in. This later turns into something akin to a kind of madness, which is heartbreaking — and frightening — to follow in the pages of this short novel.

Race relations

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on in this book (which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — you can see reviews of all the other books I’ve read and reviewed from his helpful guide here). The relationship between Mary and Dick, especially as it begins to unravel over time, is intriguing and sharply observed, but it is the relationship they each have with the natives — Dick considerate, if exploitative; Mary, harsh and belittling — that makes the book such a thought-provoking read about relations between black and white.

And the mystery element of the story makes it a compelling read. Because you know from the outset that Mary meets a violent end, you’re waiting for the moment that might indicate a motivation for her murder: is it something she does or says to the houseboy? Or is it something else entirely? (I chose this book for our book group and we all had different theories — it is certainly not cut and dried.)

Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Lessing’s prose style, which is simple and clean, but often dressed with quietly beautiful phrases. Indeed, I underlined so many passages in my copy, I’m only grateful it was an ebook; a paper edition might not have survived all the pen marks! This is a good example:

It was a wet, sultry morning. The sky was a tumult of discoloured clouds: it looked full of billowing dirty washing. Puddles on the pale soil held a sheen of sky.

 

Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Summer Before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing

SummerBeforeDark

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 236 pages; 2002. 

Having recently got over my fear of reading Doris Lessing, I decided to try another book by this Nobel Prize-winning author.

The Summer Before the Dark was first published in 1970. At the time it must have been a very contemporary novel, and perhaps a little controversial, because its central theme is the role of women in society. The main character, Kate Brown, is a domestic goddess who spends one summer rediscovering herself and her place in the world after some 20 years of marriage and motherhood.

It might sound like a relatively dull premise for a novel, but in Lessing’s hands the book sings with great storytelling, intellectual insight and drama. Kate Brown is no dull housewife: she’s a complex woman suffering what can be best described as empty-nest syndrome. Her grown up children are getting on with their lives and her husband is working in America for an extended period, leaving her to her own devices for a summer.

Good at languages — Italian, French and Portuguese — she accepts a temporary translator job at a conference in London for an organisation called Global Food. She does so well and enjoys the work so much, her stint is extended and she is promoted. Before she knows it she is one of the main organisers of another conference, this time in Istanbul, and it is here that she embarks on an illicit affair with a younger man and goes on a European road trip with him.

The affair, however, is disappointing, and stuck in rural Spain with a lover who has fallen ill, she returns to London alone. Here she holes up in a hotel — the family home has been rented out for the summer — only to become drastically ill herself. Lonely and depressed, Kate’s sanity begins to crumble and there are a few wobbly moments when she tries to make sense of who she is and why her life no longer holds a meaningful purpose.

It’s not until she takes a room in a house occupied by a much younger woman that Kate is able to confront her demons and find the courage to forge on with a new life in which her husband and children are no longer her sole focus.

The book is incredibly moving in places — you really get to feel Kate’s pain and anguish as she comes to terms with growing older. But it’s Lessing’s wry and insightful observations of a woman’s sexuality — and of its often unspoken importance to a woman’s sense of self — that this book comes into its own.  There’s a very telling scene in which Kate goes to a restaurant, just prior to the lunch time rush, and finds that her age and her sex have rendered her invisible.

She sat by herself and waited for service. In front of her stood the unvarying British menu. At the other end of the room, a waitress was talking to a customer, an elderly man. She was in no hurry to come over. When she did come she did not look at Kate, but scribbled the order down hastily on a small pad, and went back to talk to the customer, before shouting the order through a hatch into the kitchen. It seemed a long time before the food came. Kate sat on, invisible, apparently, to the waitress and to the other customers: the place was filling now. She was shaking with impatient hunger, the need to cry. The feeling that no one could see her made her want to shout: ‘Look, I’m here, can’t you see me?’ She was not far off that state which in a small child is called a tantrum.

Later she realises that to receive attention, from both men and women alike, she must dress and groom herself appropriately, to put on her ‘Mrs Brown’ face. Other revelations quickly follow.

The Summer Before the Dark, had you not already guessed, isn’t exactly a cheery or pleasurable read, but it’s an enlightening one. As a reader not far off Mrs Brown’s age (she’s in her early 40s) but the product of a different time (I chose a career over children), the book presented me with many issues to cogitate on. I suspect it would make a rather good book group read, because it throws up so many topics for discussion, many of which are still relevant almost 40 years after it was written.

Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, England, Fiction, Flamingo, horror, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Fifth Child’ by Doris Lessing

FifthChild

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 160 pages; 2001.

Doris Lessing is one of those authors you know you ought to read but never do. A case in point: I’ve had both The Golden Notebook and The Good Terrorist in my possession for more than three years and never once cracked them open. The sheer size of the books and the weight of the subjects contained within, combined with Lessing’s awesome literary reputation, have made me doubt my ability to understand and enjoy her work. Easier, then, to leave well alone.

That was until I read John Self’s review of The Fifth Child followed in due course by another review of the same book by Isabel from Books and Other Stuff. Maybe it was time to take the plunge? A slim book — just 160 pages — seemed the perfect introduction to her work.

And so this is how I came to read my first Doris Lessing last week.

The Fifth Child is billed as a horror story but it’s not from the Stephen King school of horror — it’s slightly more subtle but oodles more menacing because of it.

It’s about two people — David and Harriet — who meet at an office party in the 1960s and get married shortly after. Lessing describes them as “freaks and oddballs”, not least because they have old-fashioned views about sex at a time when the sexual revolution was in full swing. But also because in each other they saw what they were looking for:

Someone conservative, old-fashioned, not to say obsolescent; timid, hard to please: this is what other people called them, but there was no end to the unaffectionate adjectives they earned. They defended a stubbornly held view of themselves, which was that they were ordinary and in the right of it, should not be criticised for emotional fastidiousness, abstemiousness, just because these were unfashionable qualities.

With their minds set on living in a big house within commuting distance of London, they purchase a “three-storeyed house, with an attic, full of rooms, corridors, landings… Full of space for children in fact”. And then waste no time filling it with offspring — four children in ready succession — even though they can barely pay the mortgage.

Fortunately, David has a rich father who helps with the bills, while Harriet’s mother, Dorothy, is able to move in on a semi-permanent basis to help with the childcare. This enables the pair to create a welcoming, cosy home visited by a steady stream of relatives. Christmas and Easter become big family events that stretch into week-long parties. It seems an idyllic kind of life on the surface, but underneath there are sores that are beginning to fester: David has to work longer and longer hours in the city to pay for his children’s upkeep; Dorothy finds herself being taken for granted and brands the pair “selfish and irresponsible”; and Harriet becomes more and more exhausted with each pregnancy.

It is only when Harriet falls pregnant for the fifth time that things take a turn for the worse. The unborn baby is a “wrestler”, causing Harriet so much pain and discomfort she starts taking sedatives on the sly.

The drugs did not seem to be affecting her much: she was willing them to leave her alone and to reach the foetus — this creature with whom she was locked in a struggle to survive. And for those hours it was quiet, or if it showed signs of coming awake, and fighting her, she took another dose.

When she eventually gives birth to 11-pound baby Ben she notices that he doesn’t look quite right. He had a “heavy-shouldered hunched look” and a strange hairline. “He’s like a troll, or a goblin or something,” she tells David.

This feeling of having produced a non-human baby continues when Ben continually tears at Harriet’s breast, roars and bellows to the point of turning white with rage, and stares at her with cold malevolent eyes.

To say anything more would ruin the plot of the book, but essentially Ben’s mental development stalls, which has consequences for the entire family. Much of the story hinges on Harriet’s relationship to her child and raises that age-old dilemma of whether it is nature or nurture that shapes who we become.

If you are thinking that The Fifth Child sounds like a disturbing read, you’d be right. But it is also a memorable, thought-provoking one. The brevity of this book does not make it less interesting or less controversial than a more page-heavy novel, because within this slim volume there are so many issues worth debating: does class structure affect our family lives? To what extent should a mother take responsiblity for her child’s misbehaviour? Is it responsible to have so many children when you must rely on help to raise them?

Personally, I found the narrative immediately gripping, although the fast pace left me breathless at times. Everything seems to move so quickly, and Lessing is brilliant at hurrying things along with a minimal of detail or explanation — which is a necessity if you are to cover one couple’s life from courtship to raising teenage children in the space of 160 pages. I thought it was a rather effortless read and it has now given me enough courage to delve into Lessing’s rather extensive back catalogue, the first of which is likely to be the sequel to this book, Ben in the World, which looks at how Ben copes with life as a strange, inhuman adult. Fascinating.