Monday, June 16, 2008

Book review: The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist is a remarkable character study, exploring the experiences and influences that transform revolutionary dilettantes into actual terrorists. Set in London in the early- or mid-1980s (I believe, although the timeframe is never explicitly mentioned: Margaret Thatcher is running the country; millions are unemployed and dissatisfied with the Labour Party), the novel focuses on Alice Melling, an erstwhile British communist.

Alice is a fascinating, complex character. The only child of solidly middle-class parents, she rejects the creature comforts of the middle-class and identifies with the disenfranchised working poor. She is university-educated but has never held a job, preferring instead to drift from squat to commune, living off her government allowance and furthering “the cause.” Ever since university she has attached herself to Jasper, a selfish, manipulative queen who ruthlessly exploits her helpless adoration of him; since she has an irrational fear of physical contact and sexual connection, being in unrequited love with to a gay man suits her just fine.

Alice’s current group of companions, calling themselves the Communist Centre Union, needs a home. She finds a derelict house and they lay claim: moving in, cleaning out the rubbish, and getting the plumbing working again. Alice is incredibly competent, doing the bulk of the work herself and dealing with the police and various governmental agencies to enable the commune to squat in the house. Soon the house is quite nice and more people join the commune: along with Alice and Jasper are a lesbian couple, motherly Roberta and crazy Faye; two heterosexual couples, Bert and Pat (members of the CCU) and Mary and Reggie (Greenpeace activists who just need a place to live); and Philip, an unemployed tradesman. Under Alice’s careful care, the commune becomes a family – which is just what Alice is looking for, having abandoned her own.

Before long another group of revolutionaries arrives to squat in the house next door. These new comrades are much more serious about their politics than Jasper and his posturing CCU friends: there are Russian connections, and possibly IRA connections, and guns and explosives being dropped off in the dead of night. Alice is approached by one of the new neighbors who have noticed that she is the one doing all the work in her commune, and thinks that she would be better off with people more serious than her group.

But naïve Alice just wants to live with her ragtag communist family, going to demonstrations against the fascist British government and spray-painting anti-capitalist slogans on government buildings. For much of the time, Alice’s comrades are ineffectual and unfocused, feeling the need to change things but unable to decide or agree about what to change, much less how to change them. It is almost without Alice noticing that her group begins to be nudged in another, more active direction, and when the bomb finally goes off, they are all startled at what they have become.

The story meanders its way along – 375 pages and no chapter breaks! – much as Alice meanders through her own life, taking part in endless revolutionary discussions, attempting to understand family, raging in frustration against real and perceived injustices. The plot itself is not complicated; what Lessing has excelled at is depicting the fluidity and volatility of the political and personal relationships and how little events cascade into bigger ones. Originally published in 1985, The Good Terrorist remains relevant and compelling today, despite its 20+ year age.

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