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A Blade of Grass by Lewis Desoto

A Blade of Grass

by Lewis Desoto

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This book. In A Blade of Grass, Lewis DeSoto took a place and a time, a complicated, beautiful place at a complicated, horrible time and threw it repeatedly in the reader's face. And for all of that (and there is a lot of that), it is primarily a story of a tenuous friendship between two women who should have never become friends, except that they were both lonely and alone.

Tembi grew up in the place her people had always lived, until the man came and told them they would all have to go somewhere else. And when they had been moved, they found the land they had been moved to, a land they had no connection to, could not support them. And so they left; first the men, to work in the mines and then the women, to work as domestic servants. Tembi goes with her mother to live on a farm, where her mother takes care of the house. Tembi, now a young woman, works in the dairy and while she doesn't feel a part of the life of the Kral, she is happy to be with her mother. And then her mother is killed. Tembi is asked to work in the house, but she's not sure she can work for the woman there.

Marit has married an Englishman who wants to be a farmer. They find a farm on good land that they can afford because it is near the border and there has been some unrest, but Ben is both optimistic and determined and he is willing to work hard. Marit's a bit unmoored in this strange place inhabited by stolid Boers and the silent Blacks working for them, but she is willing to support her husband with his dream; it's what she's been raised to do. And then her husband is killed and she is adrift, with only the housekeeper to speak to.

There is an immediacy and a force to DeSoto's writing. The reader is never given a specific time or place to hang the story on, but his descriptions are vivid and kept close by the use of the present tense throughout. This has the effect of making the events in the story carry far more weight as there is no sense of an "afterwards". Both Tembi and Marit were complex characters, which was important in this book of great wrongs and disasters. ( )
2 vote RidgewayGirl | Mar 6, 2014 |
A wonderful, sad book. This story takes place in South Africa and is a snapshot of how apartheid affects one white family and a black woman. After her husband is killed by a hidden underground bomb, Marit finds herself alone on the farm in the midst of civil war. All servants and cropworkers (black) leave except Tembi, a daughter of the family maid (who was killed accidentally). Tembi is a lovely 18 year old girl who feels she's in the middle of apartheid. She is smart and has had formal schooling so she feels slightly higher up than the other blacks. She is kind and truly wants to help Mairt. Marit finds herself determined to keep the farm, not that she had chosen to come here, but she has no where else to go, as she' been recently orphaned now widowed. I came to love them both and wanted them to live together forever with no outside interference. (I see this book being made into a movie.) ( )
  camplakejewel | Oct 29, 2013 |
There are events in life for which ordinary people are completely unprepared. Nothing in their upbringing can give them guidance. Some people rise to the situation and come out stronger. Others are completely overwhelmed and sink from sight.

Marit Laurens found herself facing just such life altering events. A completely ordinary middle class girl, she had been 'well brought up' by the standards of 1960s white Johannesburg. Unfortunately, this upbringing anticipated a continuation of the status quo and Marit was now far away from that illusory security. Six months previously, three months after her parents were killed in an accident, she had married Ben and somewhat aimlessly adopted his life.

For his part, Ben had dreams and ambitions for both of them. Leaving the constraints of Manchester, he had come to South Africa to farm; almonds, cattle, maize, you name it, Ben was going to succeed with it. South Africa was encouraging farming in the early 1970s, the land and climate were good, the future seemed assured. Unfortunately for Marit and Ben, they had settled on the northern border, surrounded by Afrikaners engaged in fighting cross border guerilla incursions.

DeSoto, originally from South Africa, describes the land with real feeling, so that it becomes an integral part of the book. Random violence, forces of nature, and unthinking and careless cruelty impinge on this world, shocking in their speed and impact, yet insignificant to the outside.

Marit is forced to act, to make decisions, to take charge. Unprepared and unable to accept help or guidance in her new surroundings, she flounders, relying increasingly on her black housemaid. As the community around them dissolves in the escalating chaos of the unnamed war, their struggles with the outside world and each other determine their own fates and that of the farm.

Long listed for the Booker Prize, [A Blade of Grass] somehow turns a tale of unsympathetic yet understandable characters into a compelling story, somewhat in the same way a Philip Caputo or Robert Stone novel unfolds. DeSoto is less raw, but there is the same compelling inevitability, drawing the characters and the reader on to the end. This was a first novel. I will certainly look for his second one, due out next month.
5 vote SassyLassy | Apr 29, 2013 |
This is not my kind of book at all. Overly descriptive, vague and empty-feeling, and characters living in their heads instead of in the real world. I should have taken my cue from the first chapter, which is ridiculously grandiose in its description, and left the book there. But no, I felt I hadn't been fair enough to it, so on I read, until this afternoon, when I decided that if I preferred staring mindlessly off into space on the bus instead of reading, the book probably had to go.

This book uses a maddening present tense to tell the story of Märit Laurens, wife of gentleman farmer Ben Laurens, and their life on the farm near the South African border with an unnamed country. It's supposed to be about apartheid and violence and tragedy, but the 98 pages I read mostly involved thoughts, musings and ruminations, with the occasional internal monologue to liven things up. Plot-wise, Märit is supposed to be drawn to her maid, Tembi, after Tembi's mother and Märit's husband both die, and they are supposed to be involved in a struggle for survival. Unfortunately, I don't care much about Märit -- her thoughts are kind of boring -- and knowing that Ben is supposed to die really hinders my ability to appreciate his character, since I'm just sitting there waiting for the axe to drop.

I say the present tense is "maddening" because it makes me feel like the events are just kind of floating there outside of the regular time-space continuum. I prefer good solid past tense. And the characters were really not that interesting, with the exception of Ben, who seemed to be the only one who did anything meaningful (although to be fair, Tembi does more than Märit). That could be because men had greater freedom in this society, white men in particular, but if the book is focusing on the women I expect them to be able to do more than sit around and pout and suddenly turn embarrassingly horny with no real explanation. Putting this book down and moving on. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Mar 12, 2011 |
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First she must wash the seeds.
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Book description
Part historical fiction, part war-survivor story, this beautiful novel is above all an intimate drama of two young South African women who cross apartheid barriers in their search for home
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060554274, Paperback)

Lewis De Soto's debut novel, A Blade of Grass, tells the story of Marit Laurens, a young woman of British descent, recently orphaned, who has moved with her new husband Ben to a remote farm on the contested borderland between South Africa and an unnamed country. When Ben is killed by a bomb in an act of guerilla warfare, she decides to stay on and run the farm. Alone in the world, she befriends Tembi, the daughter of her black housemaid, who has also been killed, in an accident. Struggling to transform herself as the surrounding countryside descends into bloody conflict, Marit finds herself caught between the fear and prejudices of the local Afrikaner community and the shifting loyalties and growing feeling of entitlement of the indigenous black workers. When first the Afrikaners and then the blacks flee the area, and the outside world starts to encroach menacingly on the isolated farm, Marit is stripped of everything that gave her a sense of self and a sense of belonging to this place.

A Blade of Grass is a delicate, if at times naively sentimental, exploration of the arc of a courageous relationship between two women from different societies, each an outcast from her own, during the death throes of apartheid: from the rigid structure of master and servant, through the tenderness of the shared experience of aloneness and defiance in the face of societal pressures, to betrayal. De Soto has transformed the quiet immensity of the South African veldt into spare, luminous prose. He contains everything--repression and ownership, belonging and loss, humiliation and hope--in the small gesture, the seed, the blade of grass. The story's brutality is barely graphic in its depiction, but the terror is present nonetheless, lurking insistently beneath the surface, waiting at the edge of the farm. --Diana Kuprel, Amazon.ca

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:09 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"Set on the border between South Africa and an unnamed neighboring country in the 1970s, A Blade of Grass is a novel about a bitter struggle over a small farm and its dramatic consequences for two women, one white and one black." "The story centers on Marit Laurens, a young woman of British descent, recently orphaned and newly wed, who comes to live with her husband, Ben, on their newly purchased farm. Shortly after her arrival, violence strikes at the heart of Marit's world, leaving her alone and isolated. Devastated, confused, but determined to run the farm on her own. Marit finds herself in a simmering tug of war between the local Afrikaner community that surrounds the farm and the black workers who live on it, both vying for control over the land in the wake of tragedy." "Marit's only supporter is her black housekeeper, Tembi, who, like Marit, is alone in the world. The women are determined to hold on to the farm, but the quietly approaching civil war brings out conflicting loyalties that turn the fight for the farm into a fight for their lives."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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