So…I just finished this, and I have to say it was fantastic. It’s not light reading, as it deals with some heavy themes, but it’s by no means dense.
Set in pre apartheid Zimbabwe, Lessing tells the story of Mary Turner, a previously independent and happy woman who is forced into marriage with a frustratingly inefficient and ineffectual farmer by society’s expectations of her, and consequentially becomes increasingly depressed and depraved as the years on the farm pass by. The book begins with a description of Mary’s murder on the farm, committed by the black ‘houseboy’ – Lessing effectively and impressively works back through the story, only to end at the book’s starting point. As well as Mary’s story, the book is a social critique of the system of white supremacy and intense racial segregation that reigned in southern Africa. These stories intertwine most shockingly when Moses, a ‘native’, comes to work in the house, and becomes locked in a circle of domination, fear, repulsion and attraction with Mary.
I found the book engrossing, completely gripping, incredibly shocking, and quietly horrifying. Mary’s struggle with her new life and the societal rules imposed on young white women at the time is both fascinating and terrifying, while the apparent simplicity of the system of white domination becomes increasingly complex as the story unfolds. The extent of racial segregation and strife is stunning – the hatred that the white characters feel for the black population is extreme and difficult to believe or contemplate, let alone understand. The end (I’ll try not to ruin it!) is electrifying, terrifying and heartbreaking – and I definitely came to several wrong conclusions as to who had committed the murder!