A BLADE OF GRASS by Lewis DeSoto
A Blade of Grass by Lewis DeSoto was published in 2003, and is one of the books I have chosen to re-read in 2011 – my year of reading again some of the books I most enjoyed sometime in the past. It has become a very pleasurable experience even as my pile of books increases.
A Blade of Grass is set in the northern borderlands of a south African country. We meet Tembi first, a young woman 18 years old - her father works in the gold mines, away from the family, while her mother, Grace, works in the farm house. We then meet Marit Laurens, the young Missus, recently married, she has come from Johannesburg to this isolated farm, with her husband, Ben. When Grace unexpectedly dies, Tembi takes her place in the house, where Marit teaches her to cook, and the two young women, so alone and close in age become friends of a sort.
This place is isolated. On the farms owned by white farmers, there is unrest among the native workers. Marit is out of place here – she grew up in a city, she remembers her teenage years and her expectations of what her life might be like, never imagining it to be what it has become. Marit has discovered that fences are built around farms – to keep things in and out – blacks and whites, animals domestic and wild, even Marit when she walks away from the house.
Violence is erupting in the region, farmers are killed, and a nearby farmhouse is burned to the ground. The closest town has now been classified as a “Whites only”. Many farm workers are leaving as well. It is more and more difficult to live here. When Marit and Tembi find themselves alone on the farm, they attempt to grow enough to feed themselves. As the situation worsens a neighbouring farmer brings some supplies, says his family is leaving and encourages Marit to come with them, but she stays. Marit will not leave Tembi.
Lewis DeSoto is a writer who had a career as a painter, and he has brought that artist’s eye to this novel, he paints the scenes with his words. There is a scene when Tembi looks at the sky “the colour of the cloud is not the colour of rain, it is that of yellow mud”. Then the wind - then the locusts - Tembi has heard about locusts from the old people “a cloud made up of thousands of insects that cover the surface of the land. And the plague consumes everything in its path, every blade of grass, every living stalk.” The locusts come down the chimney – the crawling, the noise the smell of decay as Tembi and Marit cower in the bedroom. In the morning it is raining – there is devastation on the land. The words of the writer take the reader there.
As the country spirals into chaos all those fences – the barriers that Ben had constructed have ceased to separate any thing.
This novel was nominated for a number of literary awards when it was published in 2003. I loved it then, and I enjoyed it just as much on second reading.