A Blade of Grass by Lewis Desoto
Lewis Desoto’s A Blade of Grass is an ambitious debut, tracing the uneasy friendship between two young women in Apartheid-era South Africa. Recently orphaned and newly married, Märit appears initially unprepared for life as a farmer’s wife and has barely had the opportunity to settle in to her new home when further tragedy touches her life. Her housemaid, Tembi, has also suffered a sudden bereavement and, though from vastly different backgrounds, the women find themselves united in grief.
As their world crumbles around them Märit and Tembi draw strength from each other and learn to survive during difficult times. Left to fend for themselves as conflict ravages their homeland, the women’s struggle is reminiscent of that in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. However there is something about this portrait of female friendship that never rings true, grief is just not sufficient to explain the characters’ fluctuating attitudes to life, and to each other.
Of the two, Tembi is the more believable character, unworldly but practical and grounded; Märit is her opposite: naïve and meek but capable of volatility. Märit’s response to the death of her husband in a terrorist incident is to shear off her hair and begin to dress herself as Tembi does – to swap her prim dresses for headscarves and brightly patterned sarongs – and to suddenly develop an intense bond with the girl she had so recently harboured envious feelings against, the girl she had slapped in a fit of anger. Given what Märit has been through a degree of irrationality in her behaviour is plausible, but the ease with which she abandons the culture of servitude that has permeated her life up until this point is less so. Suddenly Tembi is her best friend, her confidante, her ally.
Desoto doesn’t seem to know whether Märit is a true free spirit or simply a woman damaged by the magnitude of her loss; sometimes he gives you the impression that this independent spark was always present in her, but then he undoes this with an incident that makes her seem stubborn, childish and weak.
Though at times it feels forced, the burgeoning friendship of Tembi and Märit is at least compelling. But Desoto overturns things once more by allowing a man to venture into their lives and making both these women respond to him in a manner that seems completely out of character. The arrival of Khoza, the stranger who comes between them, serves only to undermine a relationship that never felt that credible to begin with.
From this point onwards the episodic narrative plunges towards some very dark territory as all traces of hope are shattered and the two women find themselves facing even greater hardships. And though Desoto’s prose is rich and frequently poetic – he paints a vivid picture of the sun-scorched African landscape and of life on the farm – he fails to enlighten his readers about the volatile political situation of the country, and often favours a stiff, formal and repetitive style which doesn’t help matters.