Top critical review
Dullness taints this work of art
on April 17, 2001
"The Grass is Singing" is at once a simple story and a complex psychological and social analysis. It is a commentary on race relations in imperial Rhodesia, and an exploration of the timeless dichotomy of culture and nature.
The book is perhaps most interesting when the author describes the ideology of white colonists in Africa. In particular, the idea that extreme racism develops out of a need to justify economic exploitation is poignantly posed. It is not that whites oppress blacks because they hate them, rather they hate them because they have to oppress them and deny their human worth to maintain their standard of living. Thus, newcomers from Britain must be taught how to deal with and feel about the natives, and poor whites are despised because they seem to blur the color lines.
The main characters of this book are the Turners, Dick and Mary. Dick is an unsuccessful farmer, who lacks the mindset and risk-taking behavior of a commercial farmer-entrepreneur. Always in debt, always facing bad harvests, he still manages to live on because he finds fulfillment in his work and feels attached to the farm. Mary, on the other hand, is fundamentally unhappy with life. She was used to life in the city, working as a secretary, visiting clubs and movie theaters. She marries Dick simply because she realizes her friends think she should marry, and her meeting with the harsh realities of the countryside devastate her. Mary hates the sun, the natives, the bush; in short, everything associated with nature as opposed to culture. In the end, her unhappiness overcomes her to the point of full-fledged psychosis.
This book contains many insights, and Lessing describes the natural and social settings very vividly. Her detached exposition of the values of white farmers is very effectful (in this respect, I was reminded of Turgenev's quiet depiction of the misery of the Russian peasantry as a 'sideshow' in his stories). On the whole, however, I would have to say that the book failed to live up to my expectations, which had been raised by the captivating first chapter. We dwell inside Mary Turner's head for 200 pages, and unfortunately she is a spoiled and rather boring woman who fails to engender much sympathy.