Giannis, my Greek friend, recommended this book to me and how pleased I am that he did. Published for the first time in 1950, Doris Lessing’s story of racism and white supremacy in Africa (set in Rhodesia – which is now Zimbabwe) reminds us of racism in its purest form and shows us how insulting and devaluing and destructive it was in this era. The book is incredibly thought-provoking and I would challenge anybody to read it and not feel ashamed of the cruel and barbaric treatment that white people have inflicted on black people throughout history. In-between this message of racism and racial brutality is a gripping story of two troubled individuals who were destined for disaster from the moment they met.
As individuals, Mary and Dick Turner were incredibly dysfunctional– but even more so as a couple. Dick was the nicer of the two, though. He loved being a farmer. He loved the land and worked continuously from dawn to dusk seven days a week. But he had no head for business. Every new farming venture he turned his hand to failed. He was constantly in debt. In the eyes of other fellow white farmers, he was a failure – an embarrassment whose foolish, reckless ways let white people down. He even had to sell his car because he no longer could afford to run it.
Mary and Dick were both well into their thirties when they married, almost as a last resort. Mary hated men, hated sex and couldn’t entertain any form of emotional intimacy. Mary’s father had been an alcoholic and as an only child she grew up in a toxic household. Her mother despised Mary’s father and relied heavily on her daughter for support. Having lived in a town all her life, moving out to the remote countryside was quite a change for Mary. She made no effort to befriend the neighbouring farmers’ wives and lived rather idly in a tin shack which had no ceilings (and consequently made the daily heat intolerable).
Although Dick grew fond of Mary, his feelings were unreciprocated. Mary despised him and loathed how she had to lie beside him in bed every night. In fact, the only thing that Mary despised more than Dick was black people. She hated them with a passion because this was the way she was conditioned to think and behave towards them. So she treated them with continuous contempt and distain, as if they were lower than Dick’s two dogs. Indeed, she went out of her way to be as nasty as possible to the servants, which resulted in many staff changes over the years.
Then Moses came along, the new house boy. He was tall and handsome and very good at his job. Mary heavily resented him for his good looks and his capability and the fact that he stirred up feelings in her that she was unable and unwilling to confront. But over time they became ‘intimate’ – to what degree is left to the reader’s imagination. Personally, I doubt their relationship was physical because of Mary’s frigidness and loathing of sex, although Moses was allowed in Mary’s bedroom. He helped her to dress, which showed a degree of intimacy unheard of in African culture between a married white woman and a black male servant. I’m not spoiling the plot when I tell you that Moses murders Mary in the end because this is divulged in the opening pages of the book, but I will let you read it yourself to discover the circumstances leading up to her death.
Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She died in London aged 94 in 2013. I enquired of a fellow writer, who is also a teacher, if this novel has ever been on the school curriculum. He said to the best of his knowledge, it has only been on university reading lists but never in secondary schools. What a shame. It should be. I think it would make an excellent book for either GSCE or A Level studies and would provide an excellent opportunity to discuss the folly and destructive roots of racism. Admittedly, the world has come a long way since this book was published, but racism – like homophobia – is still entrenched in certain social classes and pockets of society. It would also be good to listen to the views of black people who read this book because it’s inevitable that they will feel a different level of emotion reading this than a white person; although most rational readers, irrespective of race or ethnicity, will share a common bond of revulsion towards the inhumanity inflicted upon native Africans at the hands of white supremacists throughout history and until recent times.
© Declan Henry