Monday, 27 October 2014


This book tells the story of one weekend in the life of a divorced man. It won the Pulitzer, and is about more than just a weekend; it's about how you accept the scope - be it limited or large - of your life.

The man's divorce still smarts, and much of the book is about absorbing that loss. Here he is, rather beautifully, on his marriage: "We paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out, went to cocktail parties, visited schools, and romanced each other in the sweet, cagey way of adults I looked out my window, stood in my yard sunsets with a sense of solace and achievement, cleaned my rain gutters, eyed my shingles, put up storms, fertilized regularly, computed my equity, spoke to my neighbours in an interested voice - the normal applauseless life of us all."

I just love 'in an interested voice' - sometimes I think that's my whole life. He is full of dreadful, despairing wisdom, like:
"For now let me say only this: if sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or you life will be ruined."
"Sometimes we do not really become adults until we suffer a good whacking loss, and our lives in a sense catch up with us and wash over us like a wave and everything goes."

So, full mid-life crisis mode. Curiously, he's only 37. This book was written in the 1980s, and I guess people married and had children sooner then, so also had the mid-life crises early. After a while, I started to find it annoying. I wanted to say: protagonist! you are living through the last golden days of being a middle class American man. Enjoy it! Feminism and China are coming to end it.

But who can fail to enjoy this description of air travel, for which I can forgive him everything: "It must be said, of course, that the interiors of all up-to-date conveyances of travel put one in mind of the midwest. The snug-fitted overhead bins, the comfy pastel recliners, disappearing tray-tables and smorgasboard air of anything-you-want-within-sensible-limits. All products of midwestern ingenuity, as surely as a waltz is Viennese."


THE GRASS IS SINGING is Doris Lessing's first novel, and in it she comes out swinging. The book opens with a snippet about the murder of a white woman by her 'houseboy,' and Lessing's first line is: "People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have."

Ouch. Thanks Doris. I guess if Zimbabwe is only to have one Nobel laureate in literature, I am glad it is her. It is a fiery book and I admire her courage in having written it in the Rhodesia in the 40s. It has the distinct smell of burning bridges to it, having been written just before she left the country forever. She was not yet 30, self-educated, and had just walked out on a marriage and two children.

The story focuses on one Mary Turner, who marries because she feels she must, and leaves her happy life in Salisbury for a remote farm. Her husband is rather a failure as a farmer, and she becomes increasingly eccentric/insane over time. She becomes a little obsessed with her domestic worker,and when she dismisses him at last he returns to kill her. If this seems like an odd summary, this is because this is an odd book. It's stressful to read, pulsing with complicated feelings about race and about the land.

Like most people from small and poor countries, I have little experience of fiction about my home, so I found it very interesting in that way. For example, there's something about the solidarity of the small community that's still there:
"It's not customary in this country, is it?" he asked slowly, out of the depths of his bewilderment. And he saw, as he spoke, that the phrase 'this country' which is like a call to solidarity for most white people, meant nothing to her.

A powerful and unusual book. It made me glad Independence came when it did, so I could grow up in Zimbabwe, not Rhodesia.


I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...