Monday, December 31, 2007

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

iconiconI recently finished Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing, and it was easily one of the darkest and most depressing — and yet most riveting — books I've read lately.

Before Lessing received the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this year, I don't think I'd even heard of her — a shame, considering my English degree and my appreciation for feminist literature.

I put library holds on several of Doris Lessing's books, and The Grass is Singing was the first I got. It took me a few weeks to get to it, but once I started reading I couldn't stop: I finished the book in just a couple of nights, despite all the holiday activity.

The Grass is Singing is one of those books that sweeps you along, until you find that what was initially not all that compelling suddenly won't let you go until you've seen it through to the end.

Here are my two strongest impressions:

* The book isn't really a love story as the NPR article suggests, rather one of despair. You know from the first paragraph of the first page that the main character, Mary, is murdered. Most of the book is about Mary's slow collapse, a breakdown caused by poverty, solitude, and the downright neglect of her mind. (There's something of the feminist writer in there, too, since it's the shift to confinement from a life of total independence that causes Mary's unhappiness and eventual madness.) It isn't until near the end that the "love affair" comes into play, and even then it doesn't seem like love. In fact, what it seems like is both manipulation and co-dependence existing at the same time, which cannot end except in tragedy — most likely a metaphor for the racist divisions in Rhodesia at the time, actually.

* I've never disliked a main character so much, yet still been so compelled by her story. Being a writer, I know that compelling main characters are flawed. This goes beyond simple flaws, though. Mary is downright distasteful: She is cruel to her native servants, snappish with her husband, and ill-suited for dealing with poverty. Yet at the same time, you are made to understand why she is like this, and to empathize — to a certain extent — with her: She gives up comfort and independence for a poor housewife's life, and then is forced to watch her husband's repeated failures to generate a respectable income. And when you realize you still don't like her, no matter why she is like she is, you also realize that you want to find out how, exactly, she got from this life of despair to being murdered.

This is not a happy or uplifting book. It is dark and somewhat depressing, and if you tend to immerse yourself in a book when you read, you will most definitely be affected by its mood. After finishing The Grass is Singing, I knew I had to read something lighthearted — which I will blog about next.

No comments: