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By Doris Lessing
New York: HarperPerennial, 2000
ISBN # 0-06-095346-2
243 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2013

The novel opens with an anonymous newspaper announcement that Mary Turner died, having been murdered by her black servant. It is an unsigned story. Thus the ending of the novel is given in just a couple of pages at the outset. The novel is the backstory of how this all came about.

It is South Africa (seemingly today’s Rhodesia) and the time, while not given, must be sometime in the 1940s, perhaps as late as 1950. Strict Apartheid is the rule. Mary has been living in the city, working as a secretary and is modestly successful. She’s quite a loner, lives in a rooming home for young women, but has become the oldest of those living there, sort of an older sister to the younger women. She does not go out much with men, does spend lots of time at the movies, and lives a quiet and fairly uneventful, but comfortable life.

After arriving at 30 years old, and being seen by others as an old maid, she begins to wonder about her future. She decides it would be best for her to marry, and in a strange and very quick set of events she meets a very poor farmer, Dick Turner, and in a short and whirlwind courtship (I hesitate to say love affair), she marries Dick and moves to his remote and very poor farm.

All the whites look down upon the blacks and don’t see them a full human beings in the slightest, but, for reasons we simply don’t know, Mary is even more extreme in her racism that most of the others. Her husband and neighbors treat their black workers very poorly and harshly, but nonetheless, are often somewhat friendly with them. Mary simply can’t abide the blacks.

Their married life is a difficult one and soon they both know it is rather loveless, but they are stuck. This was a time when marriage was a strong institution and one didn’t easily turn back. In addition Mary had given up her job and simply couldn’t get a “city” job any longer.

She constantly battles depression caused by the harsh and unloving living conditions, and that is exacerbated by her hatred of blacks.

Despite this all, and with no coherent explanation, when the young Moses becomes a house servant, Mary finds herself in an unexplainable situation. She despises his blackness, but is, in some way she simply can’t understand, drawn toward him.

Little by little she begins to lose contact with everyday reality, all the while constantly telling herself, her husband Dick and any natives who wish to hear, how much she detests the blacks and how inferior they are to the whites. The more she show and articulates her hatred, the more dependent she becomes upon Moses.

Mary is never able to confront these contradictions and her own deteriorating mental state. Eventually things become so bad that Dick is forced to sell his farm and plans to take Mary to the city for some sort of medical help and hoping to find some way to bring Mary back to the real world.

In a final set of confrontations, Moses is driven to kill Mary who has become so intimately dependent upon him, yet treats him like dirt.

The story is quite simple and powerful, but provocative as well. What is really going on? It does seem to me that Mary’s position is sort of the position of the whites of Southern Africa writ large. It is a contradictory position of dependency and control which the Apartheid social system has brought to the whites and, like Mary’s life, can only lead to insanity and catastrophe.

The novel is gripping, but also difficult. Like the situation of South Africa itself, it just doesn’t make much sense.

Bob Corbett


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