العشب يغني By Doris Lessing

    Summary العشب يغني

    في رواية العشب يغنى تتناول دوريس ليسنج السياسات العنصرية بين البيض والسود في إحدي المستعمرات البريطانية إبان الحرب العالمية الثانية حيث ارتفعت الأصوات في هذا الوقت مطالبة بأهمية إلغاء التمييز العنصري وضرورة الاعتراف بوهم تميز الجنس الأبيض علي الجنس الأسود. العشب يغني

    The Grass is Singing is Doris Lessing's first novel, published in 1950. It is a savage and stark indictment of South Africa's apartheid system. It is set in what was formerly Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and concentrates on Rhodesian white culture with its racist and prejudiced attitudes. The system of gross racial injustice dominates both the society and this story.

    The novel is told in flashback. At the beginning of chapter one there is a brief news report of the murder of a white woman plus her assailant's arrest and the purported motive for the crime. The rest of the book details the events leading up to this, with Mary Turner, the victim, as the main character. It is many-layered, the characters being not only individuals in their own right, but also types indicating the strata of complex society in South Africa at that time in history. The local culture is not rich and the humiliating results of poverty are always apparent.

    Before the long flashback, however, we have chapter one, which is particularly hard to read. The attitudes by each character, whilst varying in degrees, display such incipient arrogance and complicit acceptance of both the corrupt regime and its hidden implications, that the reader is all too aware that these views are only the tip of the iceberg. It is a manipulative and exceptionally well crafted piece of writing.

    One character, Tony Marston, has recently come from England. He is portrayed as having the typical views of a newcomer to the country, with misguided views of equality. He will soon learn the ways of South Africa, the others think indulgently. And these ways vary from treating the natives (and yes, an even worse n word is also used) as less than human, the masters having an unwavering conviction of their entitlement to maltreat, bully and beat these workers with a sjambok, even sometimes until death if they deem it necessary. Such a sorry event would be passed off with a shrug. White women were taught from a very early age to live in fear of the natives, that as a group they were untrustworthy. The shades of attitude vary, the other end of the spectrum being that the natives were alright if you knew how to handle them. They knew their place, and the master knew his.

    The repugnance felt by modern readers towards this whole spectrum of views is compounded by the fact that these are overt and explicit. This is the system of apartheid. This is the status quo. Far worse lies underneath, and this introductory chapter indicates with hints, veiled expressions, subterfuge and things left unsaid, that there are are additional ugly factors at work. The recently arrived English character is a useful hook for the reader to identify with, at this point. He knows something is badly amiss and hates the arrogance, intolerance and prejudice that he sees in neighbouring farmers such as Charlie Slatter. He also knows that plenty of people in his position give up trying to farm under such conditions, and are viewed by those who stay as not hard enough - not up to either the unforgiving land and weather, or the imposed social regime either.

    The novel itself does a thorough job of describing how each character has become what they are. Mary and Dick were two sad characters whom the reader sees very early on should never have married. For reasons that become clear on reading the novel, Mary should never have entered the farming community. Dick for his part, was a struggling farmer who wanted a family, but did not know how to choose one. The neighbours variously made successes of their lives, by their own terms. They all had a view of the homeland (England) even though some had never stepped foot in it, having been born in South Africa. And they all had a view of solidarity, of the way things should be, and that they had no connection with the natives, who came from their kraal, except as their servants or workers. They were only concerned with what the natives could do for them, viewing it as their inalienable right.

    The book is solidly set in its location. The natural strength and hostility of the South African landscape, the all-pervading poverty, the white townships, ugly little houses stuck anyhow over the veld, that had no relationship with the hard brown African soil and the arching blue sky, the unbearable heat of the corrugated iron and brick houses aggravating the desperations and tensions of the characters, are all conveyed very well. It is a finely judged and balanced book with a good narrative flow, ahead of its time, written by an author who went on to write exemplary works. So why does it not get 5 stars. Have you perhaps deduced why from this description?

    There are no black viewpoint characters. Not one. Even Moses, who was arrested in the first chapter, is not fleshed out; his actions are merely reported without any comment, insight or indeed any given motivation. The reader has to infer a resentment against the corrupt system, and that Mary is his personal representative of it. We are told that he came from a mission school, just as we were told briefly where the original old servant Samson came from. The author describes as a group where the natives come from, and how far they travel in search of work. Doris Lessing allows them to vary in looks, in attitude to work and other superficial indications. But they are not filled out in anything like as much depth as the white characters.

    Dick Turner, one of the more sympathetic white main characters, feels aggrieved, thinking of of the South African government as being under the influence of n------lovers from England. And the newcomer Tony Marston, had the conventionally progressive ideas about the colour bar, the superficial progressiveness of the idealist that seldom survives a conflict with self-interest.

    The author repeatedly castigates her white characters by implication, for lumping all natives together. Yet she does precisely that herself in this novel. In addition to the lack of characterisation of non-whites, Doris Lessing talks about the genus native. At another point she refers to, a native... conveniently endowed by nature with the ability to walk long distances without feeling fatigue. Is it deliberate? Is it an attempt to make the point about one culture alienating another even stronger? If so I think it misfires.

    The ending of the book is beautifully written. Mary's gradual mental deterioration into a complete breakdown is very convincing, and the reader is unsure what is real and what is in her mind. There is an hypnotic and oppressive feeling in this final chapter. Clearly we are invited to feel that the ending was inevitable - that the characters of Moses and Mary are puppets, or victims of their own doom. Yet nothing earlier in the novel had indicated any feelings on Moses' part, except for a brief moment of surprise and pity, when Mary had begged him not to leave, back before her depression took hold. But at the end of the novel, Lessing says of Moses, what thought of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say. Why, exactly? This idea of an enigmatic native type is not only inaccurate but very distasteful.

    It is a brave book for its time. And it is extremely well written, by an author who went on to be a Nobel prize winner. But this is far from an exemplary work.




    My Personal Glossary of terms:

    Veld - wide open rural spaces of Southern Africa. It is used in particular to refer to flatter areas or districts covered in grass or low scrub, especially in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

    Vlei - a shallow minor lake of an intermittent nature. Seasonal ponds or marshy patches where frogs and similar marsh dwellers breed.

    Kopje - a small isolated hill.

    Kraal - a homestead and usually included a simple fenced in enclosure for animals, fields for growing crops and one or more thatched huts. Afrikaans and Dutch word (also used in South African English) for an enclosure for cattle or other livestock.

    Kitchen Kaffir (dated - now offensive) - Fanagalo, a Zulu-based pidgin language.

    Compound - Closed labour camp of migrant male workers from rural homes in Bantustans or Homelands to the mines and jobs in urban settings generally. One of the major cogs in the apartheid state. Flash points for unrest in the last years of apartheid.

    Sjambok - official heavy leather whip of South Africa, sometimes seen as synonymous with apartheid.

    Mashonaland - a region in northern Zimbabwe.

    Lobengula - the second and last king of the Ndebele people, usually called Matabele in English. Migrant workers from there. Fiction This book is a stunning exposé of why Zimbabwe has Mugabe and why he, evil as he is, is certainly no worse than that great white hope, Sir Cecil Rhodes. The whites in this book, with one exception, are all devotees of Rhodes and his brand of racism - Rhodesia for the whites, the blacks are suitable for being farm animals as they are all simpleminded thieves, liars and hate the white man. It's the same mindset as slavery really.

    The grass is singing cicada songs, songs of blood, songs of freedom whispering in this hellish place on earth.

    Leaving aside the political inferences which are not heavily obvious in the story anyway, the book is a good read. The characters are beautifully drawn, very strong and believable. It begins with what happens at the end and works, in a slightly unusual way, back to the beginning and thence to that end. Not light reading, but not at all dense, heavy literature.

    The Grass is Singing would make a great film but would be very difficult to do in this day and age of pc language, publicly reviling the awful Mugabe and talking of how it wasn't good for the blacks before Mugabe is one thing. It wasn't, but it wasn't bad like this. And it isn't the inhumanity they suffered under Sir Cecil Rhodes.

    This is a good companion book to Nadime Gordima's July's People, which at a similar domestic, personal level deals with racism in South Africa. Fiction
    Doris Lessing's first novel has the precision of a fine short story and the depth of a longer novel. This portrait of the psychological disintegration of a farmer's wife saddled with an ineffectual husband on a luckless South African farm is precisely realized and and completely convincing.

    The last quarter of the novel, however, is weaker than the rest. The character of the black house servant Moses is more of a symbol than a human being, and the ending--meant to be tragic--descends to melodrama. Fiction If this novel impresses from the very beginning it is because of the openness in which Lessing plays her cards in the first chapter. The voice of the omniscient narrator glows with the clarity of objective facts that is missing in the rest of the novel, replaced by an increasingly suffocating account of two doomed lives that slowly disintegrate in polarized madness.
    The tragic end of Mary Turner, a white woman, in the hands of Moses, her black servant, in a remote, hostile South African hell is reported in crushing detachment by a young farmer, recently arrived from Great Britain, who cannot digest the unwritten laws of the Apartheid. His silent revulsion acts like a metaphor for the unspeakable horror that has ransacked a barren, parched land that the imposed supremacy of the white civilization has failed to subjugate.

    Showcasting an indisputable mastery of descriptive skills, the daily life of the Turners, a couple whacked without mercy by the gender and racial prejudices imposed on them by the rules of a segregated society, unfolds mercilessly in front of the increasingly horrified reader.
    The gradual mental decline of Mary and Dick Turner runs in parallel to the growing menace of the African landscape and its severe climatic conditions. The maddening chirping of cicadas, the extreme heat that accumulates on the tin roof of the decrepit farm-hut and the poisonous dynamics between natives and whites present a recurrent pattern of symbols that infuse the narration with a morbid undertone, erasing all traces of light, of hope for a better future.
    Both oppressors and victims at once, the characters never dwell in self-pity; rather the opposite, they abuse themselves until they lose touch with a reality that becomes more and more distorted as years pile up in front of the unchanged shapes, scents and noises of the indifferent savannah.

    The collective psychological portrait that Lessing paints with unfaltering resolve is a blunt criticism to the system of racial segregation that proved to be equally destructive both for the perpetrators and the tyrannized.
    Blacks who despise white women, who in turn, never miss an opportunity to humiliate their servants as means to evince their unquestioned racial superiority. Ironically, the white man remains impervious in the apex of the social pyramid, looking down on both groups condescendingly, keeping the wheels of a perverse social scheme going round inexorably regardless of the terrifying consequences of dehumanization on a major scale.

    When a woman, deranged by prolonged loneliness, turns to “an inferior man” for solace, a disquieting attraction shifts the scales of power and exposes the fragility of artificially set boundaries.
    When the white mistress looks the black servant in the eye and recognizes the human being staring back, insolent, reproachful, his blood boiling with barely contained rage, the whole system collapses in a pool of murky, diluted color.

    “What is madness, but a refuge, a retreating from the world?”
    Witnessing the inevitable decomposition of a woman locked in a world that chokes her to death is nothing short of appalling, but doing so through Lessing’s unnerving prose-poetry allows us to come to terms with the beastly outcome of this novel, which appositely exposes everything that makes us disgustingly, questionably and undeniably human.
    The man is hollow, the land might be wasted; but the grass is singing.
    Fiction In her first novel, The Grass is Singing (first published 1950), Doris Lessing begins with a short description of a crime on a farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe):

    MURDER MYSTERY
    By 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. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.


    For Lessing, the crime itself isn’t of interest -- it seems in some ways a foregone conclusion. Instead, she focuses on the intertwined hierarchies in Southern Rhodesia -- race, gender, class -- and uses her novelist’s lens to dissect these hierarchies. She reveals how they are formed, what holds them together, and the profound toll they take on all who live according to their rules. Her first novel is unwavering in its portrayal of the damaging racial, class, and gender-based power dynamics in Southern Rhodesia in the early 20th century. It’s all the more powerful because of Lessing’s intimate focus on the psychological toll taken on the three main characters: Mary Turner, Dick Turner, and Moses, their African houseboy (a title that is difficult to type, but that says much about the racial hierarchy in Southern Rhodesia at the time).



    Doris Lessing, c. 1950

    Lessing is well known for channeling her personal experiences into her writing. Her acute eye and gift for social analysis lend The Grass is Singing its matter of fact style and its psychological acumen. Lessing knew about unhappy marriages by living through her parents’ frustration over their inability to make their maize farm in Southern Rhodesia profitable, as well as through her own marriage. She understood the particular pressures women in the veldt faced as they struggled to translate their lives on farms in Southern Africa into cultural terms understood by their Edwardian culture. Lessing’s own experiences of being an outsider observing social conventions that limited women’s independence and autonomy fueled the hopeless desperation in her descriptions of Mary Turner. She also saw first-hand the rigid rules imposed by the white settlers to ensure that their neighbors reinforced white rule. They had to treat their African workers as subhuman, or face the consequences -- social isolation and opprobrium.



    Farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)


    African workers and children farmworkers at their compound


    Mary Turner grew up in a town. When young, she saw the friction between her mother and father, and for that reason never thought much about marrying. As an adult, she has a job, lives in a boarding home for women, and enjoys being a friend and a confidante to men and women alike -- until an overheard conversation between two of her friends leads her to follow a more socially acceptable course and get married. After a very brief courtship, she marries Dick Turner, and only then discovers that he is a struggling farmer, engaged in series of unprofitable experiments to make money on his farm, but on his own terms. (For example, he is reluctant to engage in profitable tobacco farming because of its factory-like requirements, as well as its tendency to drain the soil.)

    Lessing slowly and painstakingly unfolds the Turners’ struggles -- with the land (including drought and disease), with local white society and its rigid code of conduct, with Africans whom they need to work the land, but fail to understand or treat like humans, and with each other. Over time, as Mary moves further from her husband and neighbors, she eventually begins to see Moses, the African who works for her as a houseboy, in a different light. This shift in their relationship sets into motion the catastrophic events that lead to the novel’s conclusion.


    Southern Rhodesia -- postcard c. 1940


    Countryside of Southern Rhodesia

    This is a novel that explores the gaps between individual and social expectations and reality. Lessing understands the profound dangers faced by people who lack a fundamental psychological understanding of themselves and each other, especially in a society that is built on inequalities. She unflinchingly portrays the staggering cost we pay as a society, and as individuals, when we reinforce a social order built on dehumanization and surface appearances.

    Lessing took her novel’s title from Eliot’s The Waste Land. She includes the relevant passage as an epigraph:

    In this decayed hole among the mountains
    In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
    Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
    There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home.
    It has no windows, and the door swings,
    Dry bones can harm no one.
    Only a cock stood on the rooftree
    Co co rico co co rico
    In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
    Bringing rain

    Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
    Waited for rain, while the black clouds
    Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
    The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
    Then spoke the thunder
    -- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land


    It’s difficult to imagine a more ominous, or perfect, opening passage to set the scene for the Turners’ tragedy. Eliot’s focus on an unforgiving landscape and on severe weather that is inescapable carries us to the African veldt where we are left, vulnerable and exposed to the dangers heading our way. It is all the more tragic when we realize these dangers are of our own making.

    Fiction

    “It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.”
    -Author Unknown

    ****4.5 Stars**** I was shattered with the outcome of this novel. Disturbing. Unflinching. Compulsively readable.

    Fiction Colonialism in southern Africa: both sides left in destruction

    Doris Lessing, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for literature, tells the incredibly haunting story of the disintegration and descent into madness of Mary and her husband Dick Turner, simultaneously revealing the scathing truths of apartheid-ruled life in Rhodesia. This was her first book, published in 1950. What a debut! I'm stunned, I have goosebumps; I'm unfit to do this book justice, to convey the claustrophobic, solitary descent the Turners take in the unbearable heat of their barren, hopeless farm and tin-roofed house.

    The beginning of this book reveals the end: Mary is found murdered by her houseboy, a native worker named Moses. The book then backs up a good fifteen years, when Mary is younger and living a rather enviable, independent life. It explains how she ends up choosing to marry, and the slow, hot, soul-destroying existence she shares with her husband on their farm. And it tells the story of her murder, and all that contributes to this tragic violent end.

    You get a clear idea of the rigid class system - rich white colonists at the top, followed by poor whites, then Afrikaners, and then blacks. Constantly toiling, yet ineffectual and blinded by his pride, Dick Turner keeps them spinning in poverty, season after season, year after year. The Turners are looked down upon because they simply can't succeed. They are a stain and shame on their people.

    Lessing sets the tone for this novel in the first page, illuminating the colonial attitude towards the black Africans.** It is made painfully clear as the novel progresses, especially through Mary's treatment of the workers in her home and on the farm, which originates from both fear and the poisoned world she has lived all her life.

    This is a story of poverty, of racism, of the twin solitude that marriage can be. This is a story of what happens when unspeakable lines are crossed. This is a story of the cost of segregation, where the propagators are also victims of a hateful system. It is also a story of southern Africa, a merciless, sun-scorched place where men struggle and die but the cicadas keep singing.

    **I learned some nasty racist language in this novel, a sad education of the time and place. Fiction The Grass is Singing is a novel of colonialism, human degradation, and an uncomfortable view of the prevailing attitude of a time and place, and yet, to me it was more so a powerful portrait of a crumbling mind.

    Mary Turner is a hideous woman; bitter, cruel, entitled. What started out as a woman’s resentment over a boring farm life and a distant marriage soon turned into something deeper and much more unsettling. Sometimes people are broken so early in their life that it’s impossible to ever be whole, and at her core, Mary Turner was ruined long before adulthood and her neurosis was merely the lid on a simmering pot of rage and hurt. The book opens with her murder; we know she’s doomed. We watch as she flails and unravels and in the end, perhaps, finds some kind of distorted relief.

    This is Lessing’s portrayal of a woman without a choice; a child without a choice; a people without a choice. The farm fails, the marriage fails, Mary Turner’s brain fails. Apartheid fails. The atmosphere in this book is sweltering, suspenseful, and hypnotic. It’s all unrelentingly heat and blinding sun and unbearable tension. Something’s got to give. The ineffectual trying trying trying…Mary Turner tried, but she never stood a chance, not with that husband, not in that country, not with that childhood, not when she was destined to brood away all her days inside her head, the frustration a ticking time bomb. This is what happens, Lessing said, when women can’t choose. This is the outcome, she tells us, when you enslave people. This is unnatural and wrong and this is what you get.
    Fiction There should be a few warnings on the cover of this short novel : contains no likeable characters and many descriptions of really disgusting racist behaviour. I can’t remember reading so much intimate detail about the white racist’s seething physical and mental horror at the very presence of a black person before. This is going to upset some readers for sure. Here is a mild passage about that :

    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.


    Doris Lessing wrote this age 25, it was her first novel, and it’s quite brilliant. It does several difficult things at once. It traces the slow painful collapse of a hideously inappropriate marriage between two people who should have stayed single and didn’t simply because of the social pressure to conform; it explains the class divisions within white colonial society whereby “comfortably-off” British farmers were okay with thinking of some Afrikaans farmers as poor whites but couldn’t stand it if a British farmer couldn’t make a go of his farm; it shines a laserbeam light on the horrible dealings of the white farmers with their black workers in the fields and in their homes where men are always called boys, always; and it expertly performs that trick of making you think for many pages our main character Mary Turner is sympathetic and is just a misunderstood oddball until gradually you see she is a monster. I love that trick.

    Mary is what cute columnists these days call a kidult – she never wants to grow up, she freezes at the mental age of 14, she becomes an office worker and lives in a boarding house for young ladies until she’s 30 and then unfortunately overhears a conversation and is rudely awakened to the fact that she should already be married with children so she marries the first guy who shows the slightest interest and this is a young farmer, so in the twinkling of an eye she is out in the bush on a run down farm with a guy who turns out to be a fool. This husband has some notions about soil and tree preservation and crop differentiation which may be ecologically sound but which condemn him as an eccentric and are guaranteed to never make him any money. There is a particularly great section showing how when Mary shakes off her depression and focuses her brain she sees exactly why their farm never makes money and how to improve their grinding life and he sees what she means and admires her rare burst of mental clarity and even agrees with her but he just can’t bring himself to rip everything out and plant tobacco, he just can’t do it.

    In the end, everything goes to hell. Don’t look for any morally uplifting message here.
    This short novel was on course for the full five stars, that's how good it is, until 40 pages from the end when Doris started waffling about Mary’s final mental disintegration and it seems couldn’t stop. She starts writing in slow-motion and it keeps getting slower. Such a shame, after being so sharp and indelible until then.

    But still recommended, for sure. Fiction Re-read after about 7 year's break.

    One of the unusual things about this, Lessing's first published book, is the extreme omniscient author position she takes. She describes a character's appearance to others, then swoops into her psyche to reveal her thoughts. She describes someone's response to another person's expression and then jumps to his companion's view of him. To emphasise her power even further, she shifts from objective descriptions of the landscape to characters' experiences of it. However, there is one threshold she will not cross, and it is into the minds of black characters, usually referred to in author-voice and by white characters as 'natives'.

    I think Lessing has adopted this position, and drawn attention to it, and made an exception to it, to emphasise white supremacist arrogance and ignorance in general, and to acknowledge her own limited perspective as a white writer. In the opening chapter, we find this about the black man, Moses, who will be executed for murdering the white woman, Mary:

    People did ask, cursorily, why the murderer had given himself up. There was not much chance of escape. But he did have a sporting chance. He could have run to the hills and hidden for a while. Or he could have slipped over the border into Portuguese territory. Then the District Native Commissioner, at a sundowner party, said that it was perfectly understandable. If one knew anything about the history of the country, or had read any of the memoirs or letters of the old missionaries and explorers, one would have come across accounts of the society Lobengula ruled. The laws were strict: everyone knew what they could or could not do. If someone did an unforgivable thing, like touching one of the King's women, he would submit fatalistically to punishment, which was likely to be impalement over an ant-heap on a stake, or something equally unpleasant. 'I have done wrong, and I know it,' he might say 'therefore let me be punished.' Well, it was the tradition to face punishment, and really there was something rather fine about it. Remarks like these are forgiven from native commissioners, who have to study languages, customs, and so on; although it is not done to say things natives do are 'fine'. (Yet the fashion is changing: it is permissible to glorify the old ways sometimes, providing one says how depraved the natives have become since.)

    So that aspect of the affair was dropped, yet it is not in the least interesting, for Moses might not have been a Matabele at all. He was in Mashonaland; though of course natives do wander all over Africa. He might have come from anywhere: Portuguese territory, Nyasaland, the Union of South Africa. And it is a long time since the days of the great king Lobengula. But then native commissioners tend to think in terms of the past
    Here we have the assumption of white authority and expertise, exotification of 'native tradition', followed by a confession of ignorance that must be diffused with assertions of indifference and contempt.

    Having opened with the aftermath of the murder, Lessing rewinds to unravel the tableau, telling the story of Mary from her childhood. This section of the story has feminist interest, because the naive young woman from an unhappy, unsupportive background is happy, independent, successful and a good friend to those around her until the pressure of heteronormative expectations and patriarchal constructions of women's roles breaks upon her and pushes her into marriage to a young farmer, Dick, who is similarly directed by convention and vague desires. Knowing little of each other they are both disappointed in their expectations and sink into a mutually damaging marriage. Mary, struggling to adapt herself to her new situation, driven by a mixture of complex personal shame and the culture of white supremacy, abuses her servants and alienates her neighbours, mismanaging the little portion of her life she can control.

    If Mary's redeeming feature is her former happiness, Dick's is his respect and love for the land of his farm. Unlike his neighbour Charlie Slatter, who grows tobacco, grazes cattle and makes no effort to maintain the fertility of his soil, Dick plants trees and rotates crops, growing them in small batches. Due to his lack of business sense and short attention span with his misguided investments, he never makes money, and both he and Mary are harrowed and embittered by their poverty.

    Like all of the white South Africans, Dick is an ardent bigot, and Lessing-as-author cannot restrain herself from direct criticism of him: 'Listen to me,' said Dick curtly. 'I work hard enough don't I? All day I am down on the lands with these lazy black savages, fighting them to get some work out of them[...] you should learn sense. If you want to get work out of them you have to know how to manage them. You shouldn't expect too much. They are nothing but savages after all.' Thus Dick, who had never stopped to reflect that these same savages had cooked for him better than his wife did, had run his house, had given him a comfortable existence, as far has his pinched life could be comfortable, for years

    At other points in the book, she is more subtle, allowing white injustice to indict itself:
    Like most South Africans, Dick did not like mission boys, they 'knew too much'. And in any case they should not be taught to read and write: they should be taught the dignity of labour and general usefulness to the white man.
    and
    She said again sharply, her voice rising: 'I said, get back to work.'
    At this he stopped still, looked at her squarely and said in his own dialect which she did not understand, 'I want to drink.'
    'Don't talk that gibberish to me,' she snapped. She looked around for the bossboy who was not in sight.
    The man said, a halting ludicrous manner, 'I... want... water.' He spoke in English, and suddenly smiled and opened his mouth and pointed his finger down his throat. She could hear the other natives laughing a little from where they stood on the mealie-dump. Their laughter, which was good-humoured, drove her suddenly mad with anger[...] most white people think it is 'cheek' if a native speaks English. She said, breathless with anger, 'Don't speak English to me,' and then stopped. This man was shrugging and smiling and turning his eyes up to heaven as if protesting that she had forbidden him to speak his own language, and then hers - so what was he to speak? That lazy insolence stung her into inarticulate rage[...] involuntarily she lifted her whip and brought it down across his face in a vicious swinging blow.
    Mary's steadily disintegrating mental health is the dynamic moving the plot throughout. Lessing keeps the focus on her and most often takes her perspective. She carefully and cleverly marks this foregrounding, for example by suddenly giving Moses a name for the first time when Mary is shaken out of her lassitude by the sudden, deeply uncomfortable awareness of his humanity, when he waits for her to be out of sight before completing the task of washing himself. Mary is unable to process this pivotal revelation. Although she is deeply unsympathetic, the reader is able to empathise with her and see her as a damaged personality locked into a situation that is hostile to her fragile, confused sense of herself.

    In my opinion this book is a passionate, humble and self-aware response to the virulent injustice of white supremacy and the social structure in South Africa.

    Just as I finished reading it, I came across the website of an exhibition of Margaret Bourke-White's photography from South Africa that is contemporary to Lessing's book. This section is on farm workers and this one on exotification is particularly interesting. The photograph at the top of this page could be Mary and Dick: 'poor whites'. Fiction

    العشب