A writer looks to her future | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 18, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 18, 2009

A writer looks to her future

Rahad Abir is charmed by a first novel

Doris Lessing, the 2007 Nobel Prize winner, definitely has had a fascinating life. She was born to English parents, lived in Iran until she was five, and then moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she spent her most formative years growing up on a farm. It is said that by and large the first novel is a writer's own shadow of his/her life. The Grass is Singing is not out of this stream as well. This is Doris Lessing's first novel, published in 1950, which is based upon the life of a distressed woman and her marriage against the backdrop of the Rhodesian society of the late 1940s.
Mary, a lifeless white woman and the protagonist of the novel, marries Dick Turner, a struggling white farmer working in Rhodesia. Unhappiness is the word that chases Mary throughout her whole life. It started from her very early living. Her childhood was largely unhappy because her father was drunk and her mother twisted.
Mary does have a hard life. Her husband Dick is a different cup of tea. He is completely obsessed with the farm, the land he has bought. He finds it hard to understand his wife. His relationship with his wife is difficult. For this reason, Mary develops a sort of illicit relations with the slave Moses. Her days on the farm are horrible, since there is no second white person with whom she can share her problems and even talk.
Lessing has drawn Mary's character in expert manner. She has shown the position of women in society, particularly in the way Mary is virtually forced into marriage because of other people's opinions. If a woman wants to live by herself, people do not take it easily. At present, it is very common in western society but the scene used to be different in the 1940s.
The opening scene of the novel is astounding. It starts with news of murder. Mary Turner is killed by the black houseboy, Moses, who despises her but at the same time has always been attentive to her. Perhaps he kills her because he does not take kindly to the idea of her leaving him. Surprisingly, after the murder he doesn't escape. Shall we call it love?
The mental suffering of a human being is well stated in the novel, since it is a psychological analysis of Mary. Gradually she becomes disappointed and mad at her husband. He is weak, incompetent and a good for nothing. She is stricken with poverty, isolation and sees no hope in her life at all. We feel sympathy for her because her past life and feelings are also covered in great depth.
Lessing grew up on a farm where like all white people her family had black servants and farm workers. Like her character Mary, Doris Lessing's own married life was not happy as well. She got married twice, and both the marriages failed sadly. There's a saying, to marry once is a duty, twice a folly, thrice a madness. Lessing did not marry anymore; she spent her life alone with her children in England. And she kept writing. Her personal and childhood experience appears to have been the motivating factor behind her first novel.
Racism and colonialism have come significantly into the story. Like many whites Mary Turner despises native Africans. We see how rudely she handles the natives when she looks after the farm owing to Dick's illness.
A critic commented, as a reaction to Lessing's coming by the Nobel Prize, that she had written a lot and over the previous fifty years what she had written mostly was nothing but rubbish. That said, Lessing is one Nobel winner who has written a great deal and undoubtedly she is a prolific writer. Her early writing criticizes colonial attitudes towards race, politics and women's role in society. Lessing's best-known novel is The Golden Notebook (1962) and it has become part of classic feminist literature.
The Grass is Singing is tenderly written. The characters, the story, the colonial time, psychological analysiseverything is well-knit. In this first novel Lessing was to prove herself as a successful literatteur.

Rahad Abir is a writer and journalist.
Email: rahadabir@gmail.com.

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