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Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Grass is Singing (1950 by Doris Lessing

Book Review
The Grass is Singing (1950)
 by Doris Lessing

  The story of European imperialism in Africa did not end after the post World War II independence movements. Most Americans are vaguely familiar with what happened in South Africa: the apartheid regime and the actions by the African National Congress, leading to relatively peaceful handing over of power following negotiations in 1990.   The story in the area north of South Africa, called Rhodesia, then Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia and then, after independence Zambia and Zimbabwe.   Zimbabwe became quasi-independent in the 1960s when a whites-only government was denied permission to form an avowedly racist post colonial state.  A two decade civil war followed, with the present regime taking power in 1980.  Most whites in Zimbabwe left at that point, and those that remained have faced sometimes violent attempts at land repatriation at the hands of the ruling party.

  Doris Lessing is FROM Zimbabwe and her experience was that of the poor white farmers of that place. There is nothing particularly problematic about her attitude, and it's impressive that a novel written by a white Rhodesian in the early 1950s has stood up so well over time.  I think the sexual undertones to the conflict between Mary Turner and her African murderer/house boy make this title less favored as a class room book (compared to Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.)   All three books represent a half-way point between a truly native African literature and the tourist colonialism of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and lesser literary lights.

 I was quite taken with her descriptions of the lonelness of the southern African savannah or "Veldt" as it is know by the Dutch settlers.  Midway through the book, she becomes obsessed with the incessant heat, almost to the point where you could argue the heat and stillness drive her mad. Lessing is aware of the physical environment of her novel in a way that is unusual for a book published in 1950.

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