10 July 2009

The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing is an amazing writer in many ways. Her prose is harsh yet lyrical, evocative and absolutely gripping. Politically, she's a fascinating writer, excoriating ignorance, racism, and greed but without resorting to caricature - her characters are revolting and yet strangely human and sympathetic. This book is no different - except for the last 3 pages, where it falters badly.

The novel begins with the murder of Mary Turner by a "native", and then Tarantinos it to explain how it happened. It's all well and good at first, a seething misery of a woman descending into madness that's brilliantly evoked. It doesn't seem unreasonable that the perspective of Moses, the murderer, is missing, because the text is obviously rooted in the perspective of the Turners, and is engaged in depicting their ignorance and oblivion.

But then, in the last pages, it seems to turn its attentions to Moses. And you think, ah! Perhaps I will now learn why he did what he did, and what he thinks of all this. But no. Despite being in his perspective, you never enter his head. What his thoughts are, the work says, "it is impossible to know". Why is it so impossible? wtf? Isn't that why I read novels, to know? Is the mind of the native truly so unknowable? I doubt it. While the text is solid in depicting white ignorance, it can't seem to make the move to actually overcome it. As someone I was talking to once put it - "First there were novels that didn't realize the natives had interiority. Then there were novels that used irony to critique white people for not realizing that the natives had interiority. But when will there be novels that actually depict the native's interiority?"

Indeed. A good book - a great book, even - for the most part, but the last few pages were a decisive let down.

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