The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

The author of this book died recently and that led me to buy this, the first of her many novels. My wife read it before I could get round to it and told me it was ‘depressing’.

And so it is, but in a brilliant and memorable way. The story is set in Rhodesia and concerns a woman who lives as a privileged white person in that apartheid society. She marries, later than her contemporaries, having spent her middle years living as if she were not getting any older. The moment when she overhears her so-called friends mocking her age and sexlessness is very affecting.

After that, the book becomes much more centred on the harsh landscape and farming environment in which she ends up with the husband she hardly knows, himself a novice in the ways of other people and something of a dreamer.

Their unhappy relationship in the claustrophobic setting of the poor, unsuccessful farm, is played out against the forbidding and unsettling backdrop of racial division, apartheid, and its sheer inhumanity.

The book powerfully illustrates the ‘all or nothing’ nature of racial oppression – you can’t be half-hearted about it, if you want to make it ‘work’. This leads to terrible brutality and, ultimately, the sad spectacle of people trying to live in a situation that is so flat out wrong, it becomes impossible.

The book is well-paced and sparsely written. I thought it was outstanding.


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