Friday, 20 March 2015

Book Review: The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing
In the European Union we are living an era of relative peace and security which makes us easily forget that ever again in human history conservative as well as revolutionary powers (be they stately, religious or ideological) tried to eradicate “dangerous” ideas and ways of life by force and with childish obstinacy. Irony of fate has it that they all disappeared sooner or later leaving little more than ugly spots on collective memory and consciousness. Nonetheless also those who believe terror a proper means of politics are human beings and The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing, which I’m reviewing today, shows what might go on in the mind of one who wants to force the perfect world of her own dreams on society because others don’t seem to have the courage to fight for it.

Doris Lessing was born Doris May Taylor in Kermanshah, Persia (today: Iran), in October 1919. In 1925 the family moved to a farm in Southern Rhodesia (today: Zimbabwe) where she attended a convent school until she started working as a nursemaid at the age of fifteen. Encouraged to continue studying on her own by her employer she soon turned to writing and her first stories were published in magazines. Her true career as a writer, however, started only after two failed marriages and having moved to London, U.K., in 1949. She brought out her first novel The Grass is Singing in 1950, but her literary breakthrough didn’t come before 1962 when The Golden Notebook appeared. For her life-work consisting of more than two dozen novels – like for instance Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), The Good Terrorist (1985), The Cleft (2007), and the two series known as The Children of Violence (1952-1969) and The Canopus in Argos (1979-1983) –, almost as many short story collections, some autobiographical texts, essays, plays, and poems the author was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature 2007. Doris Lessing died in London, U.K., in November 2013.

It’s in the early 1980s and The Good Terrorist starts as a rather ordinary Communist squatter who joins a commune of comrades already living in a derelict house in London. Her name is Alice and she is a woman of thirty-six with a degree in Politics and Economics, but to her parents’ great annoyance she never even tried to get a job after graduation. For over fifteen years she has been moving from squat to squat with her likewise jobless friend Jasper in tow although they aren’t really a couple. Alice loves Jasper, he only depends on her, though, and can’t even bear her touch because he is homosexual and loathes women. When Alice and Jasper arrive at the spacious house in 43 Old Mill Road, it is little more than a smelling rubbish heap that serves as a temporary shelter. Only Alice sees in it a beautiful place that she can turn into a comfortable home. So while the others go to demonstrations and pickets, Alice does everything in her power to save the house from impending demolition and to restore it to some of its former splendour which requires not only a lot of cunning on her side, but also much more money than she gets from Social Security. Since friends and parents refuse to help out – knowing that most of the money would inevitably end in the hands of Jasper –, she resorts to stealing it from her father against whom she has a grudge. Politically Alice and her comrades of the Communist Centre Union want to increase their political impact and offer their services first to the IRA and then to the KGB. Neither wants them. They attract, however, the attention of the squatters from the neighbouring house and before soon they are really involved in activities of IRA and KGB... but they are annoyed because they are no longer willing to take orders. They set out to fight against fascist imperialism all on their own building a car bomb…

At the time of its release The Good Terrorist has been a highly controversial novel. The plot of the third-person narrative from the protagonist's point of view is simple and doesn’t offer many ups and downs because it is centred on daily life in the commune or rather on Alice’s constant struggle to keep it going. Alice is an ambiguous character largely driven by rage against her parents and society which she equals with fascist imperialism without really thinking about it. She refuses their middle-class values, and yet, she lives them when she adopts the role of a mother who spares neither pains nor expenses to take care of her house and her family, i.e. the squatters. In other respects her behaviour often makes think of a “sweet girl” in her adolescence. This becomes most obvious in her relationship to Jasper that doesn’t force her to grow up emotionally and sexually for the simple reason that he is homosexual, while adult desires and practices scare and disgust her as show the scenes in comrade Andrew’s room. At the same time it is obvious that she is also a spoilt child who believes that her parents and the world should be the way she wants them to be. Altogether Alice may seem depicted in a rather superficial way, but then she isn’t a particularly deep person – nor are the other squatters. Doris Lessing’s language and style match the atmosphere in the commune which certainly can’t be called warm and intellectual. Words flow in a matter-of-fact tone and make the story easy to follow.

At first I wasn’t quite sure if I should review The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing because it might evoke unpleasant memories of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and now Tunis. On the other hand, I think that it’s a good idea to slip into the skin of a terrorist for as long as it takes to read the novel. There may be much truth in what the author had to say about her group of terrorists, but it’s the work of a fiction writer, not of a psychologist or a profiler. And the novel's terrorists live in the 1980s, thus in a pre-digital age. However, it’s an excellent book and therefore worth reading.

In memoriam of the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris (January), Copenhagen (February) and Tunis (March) 2015.

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This review is my second  contribution to Valentina's 2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK! To know more about this challenge and my reviews for it »»» please read my sign-up post.


At the same time it is part of the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge. For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!


  1. Excellent review. I have not read this one yet because I am reading Lessing's novels in the order she wrote them. From doing that though, I learned that having spent some time in her early 20s as a communist, she has a good bit of insight into what makes those people tick. As you say, it is good to get inside the minds of terrorists, especially when we live under their threat everyday.

    1. Thanks for the praise, Judy! In fact, the book is the more interesting because terrorism has seen such an unexpected revival these past years. And Doris Lessing certainly knew what she was talking about although I have no idea how close she ever was to terrorist circles... After all, not all communists were/are terrorists.


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