Once again, I blame my foolish self for not writing the review as soon as I read the book. I read it before my one-week trip to Chicago, and now, nearly three weeks later, my mind is blank and I am furiously searching through my long-gone memory as to what I was planning to write. But I will try my best.
I remember being cautious of buying this book in the first place, because frankly, I haven’t had the greatest luck with Nobel Prize winning writers. I buy their books with the anticipated eagerness of immersing myself into the works of internationally acclaimed authors, only to find myself blankly staring at what I guess is convoluted symbolism and what I come to consider as ‘high literature’, too high and noble for my simple mind to understand. Doris Lessing is best known for ‘The Golden Notebook’, a scarily thick book I remember lying on the shelves at the Kyobo Bookstore a long time ago, which I ended up not buying. Fortunately, this book has restored faith in my ability to understand Nobel Prize winners, for now.
In this book, Lessing explores the psyche and emotions of Mary, a white woman living in South Africa in the 1940s. In the beginning, she is a single working woman, rather satisfied with her life, until she realizes her ‘friends’ and acquaintances look at her ‘single’ status as a gentle yet cruel object of mockery. She decides to marry a man she barely knows but who is apparently the only one willing to do so. She is transported into the confines of rural Rhodesia, far from her city life and her white friends, to be subjected to the tough and insecure routine of life as an incompetent farmer’s wife and at the proximity of African workers.
As Mary’s loneliness and desuetude increase, so do her hatred and condescending feelings towards the black workers and their families. We witness, with horrified awe, not without sympathy nonetheless, the development of her solitary character. Horrified awe at her cruelty and blunt racism towards the African workers, but mixed sympathy because we know she is just another product of the long-term white dominion in this part of the world, like many others in those times. Lessing manages to portray and describe this whirl of what would otherwise be considered horrifying emotions and attitude in Mary as a combined product of white supremacy and her personal upbringing and influence from her parents. As her new reality built around the arid, lonely, hot and vast farming lands in rural Rhodesia slowly, but surely, engulf her, Mary cannot help but see the image of her parents in her present life, which she had tried so hard to avoid during her adult life. Bitterness and anger ensue from such realization, and the presence of the African workers and their families, with their seemingly carelessness and detachment from reality, only exacerbate her. However, as long as they remain workers, people roaming around the vast farming fields, without any form of interaction with her, she remains safe in her spite towards them. After all, they are just ‘animals’, ‘obvious and natural objects of contempt’ and she possesses the ‘right’ to behave callously towards them… that is, until Moses.
What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip. [p. 164]
Moses’ few words in English, his direct gaze to her eyes, the unexpected whip she brings down on him, and the shift in his presence in her life, from the farming fields to her household, break this invisible barrier between white woman and black man, between mistress and servant. While Mary’s downward spiral from independent city woman to solitary and monotonous farmer’s wife was a rather slow process marked with moments of revival (decorating the house, attempt at escaping to the city, real concern for her husband’s farming business), the transformation and mental breakdown she undergoes as the white mistress are on an unmistakable fast track. Lessing puts in parallel the collapse of the whole white dominion and the collapse of the individual Mary. As we witness the disintegration of Mary as a person, we cannot help but predict the destruction and implosion of the white man’s system, with all its faults, irrationality and incongruity.