It is not as though I am a stranger to the work of Doris Lessing. I have admired ‘Martha Quest’, appreciated ‘Memoirs of a Survivor’, and been amazed by ‘The Golden Notebook.’ I have also seen many positive features in ‘The Summer Before the Dark’, ‘The Good Terrorist’ and ‘The Four-Gated City.’ Nevertheless, I have been stunned by the quality of ‘The Grass is Singing.’
The book has the power that made ‘Martha Quest’ a revelation. It has much of the realism that made the autobiography of Lessing a pleasure to read. And it has a style which captures poverty, beauty, and despair with equal felicity of expression. Her prose becomes poetic when she describes the countryside. Lessing gets inside the heads of her characters without timidity. And at this stage in her career, her work was a passionate indictment of injustice.
When it comes to the question of feminism, I am a little unsure. She composed the novel before feminism gathered new strength after its post-war defeats. It is hard to tell if Lessing actually liked the women she depicted. There is something hard and pitiless about her attitude to people who were trapped in social structures they lacked the ability to understand. At this point, Lessing’s anger at imperialism was arguably more passionate than her anger at patriarchy. Throughout her career, Lessing was hard to classify- too individualist to fit in easily with the new social movements which she chronicled. Putting these ideological reflections to one side, this was a great and surprising read.