In contemporary London, a loose-knit group of political vagabonds drifts from one cause to the next, picketing and strategizing for hypothetical situations. But within this world, one particular small commune is moving inexorably toward active terrorism. At its center is Alice Mellings, a brilliant organizer who knows how to cope with almost anything, except the vacuum of her own life. Always reliable, she makes herself indispensable to the commune, earning a precious sense of belonging by denying her own sense of self. But now, suddenly, the stakes are rising. Some in the group appear to have ties to insurgents in Northern Ireland and even to Soviets who are "recruiting." A small bomb set off on a deserted street leads to ideas that are dangerously ambitious, and there is a "professional" who is eager to meet with Alice and discuss her future with his organization.
"A chilling, strangely compelling story - one that will haunt listeners for quite some time....essential for all literature collections; highly recommended." (Library Journal) "[A] compulsively readable story....vividly displays the full array of Lessing's superb gifts as a traditional writer." (Publishers Weekly) "[Narrator Nadia] May leads the pack, bringing subtleties and shadings to her interpretations that few can equal." (Whitney Scott)
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Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The story moves very slowly, and things really only start to happen in the final act, yet I was never bored by this book. Doris Lessing's writing is like one of the finer social satirists of the 19th or early 20th century, writing about contemporary events, or at least contemporary for the 1980s, when this book was written. The Good Terrorist is about Alice Mellings, who is, with great and lasting irony, exactly the sort of comfy-making, boo-boo kissing motherly type as her own mother was, even though Alice is now a "revolutionary" who spits on everything her horrible, awful, no-good bourgeois parents stand for, when she isn't begging them for money (and stealing from them when they won't give it).
The grown woman of solidly middle-class Brits, Alice was given everything by her parents, including a good university education. But we learn that her fractured relationship with both mother and father (who are themselves divorced) is at the root of all Alice's discontents. Now her father is remarried and running a business and trying to wash his hands of his problem child of a grown daughter, and her mother has turned into an impoverished alcoholic. Alice's interactions with her parents are painful because it's one of those situations where an outside observer can easily see that if just one of them would bend, just a little bit, they could make peace, but they always manage to say exactly the wrong things to each other, and neither Alice nor her parents ever have the emotional maturity to talk like grown-ups without verbal knives drawn.
When not being reduced to an eternally rebellious teenager in the presence of her parents, Alice is a whirlwind of industriousness and hard work ethic, even though it's all applied to keeping an "approved tenancy" in which she and her fellow communist "revolutionaries" are squatting from being demolished by the council. Her co-revolutionaries are all freeloading under-achievers like Alice, the difference being that she could easily make something of her life, while most of her "comrades" are just plain losers.
But amidst all their "organizing" and "protesting" and "sticking it to the fat capitalist pigs," a plan gradually emerges to work with either the IRA or with their revolutionary Russian comrades. At first this seems like as much a joke as any of their other plans, since Alice is the only one who ever actually does anything, and she's mostly doing housework and den-mothering all these wannabes. What would the IRA or the Soviets want with a bunch of idiots like these? But if you insist on being a useful idiot long enough, someone will use you, and like shadows at the edges of a campfire, the real actors out there begin to come circling.
The Good Terrorist isn't a suspense novel or a spy thriller or a crime caper. It's a character drama, with a bunch of interesting characters who are all much alike except in that they are each individuals with their own problems and quirks, and they're all kind of unlikable idiots, even before they start getting in over their heads with real bad guys. Only Alice is sympathetic, and she's still as much of a fool and a naif as the rest of them, it's just that in her case, we can see all the wasted energy and potential. Her entire life has been spent in a kind of dreamworld, living for other people, being shaped by other people's opinions of her, and deliberately looking away from ugly reality. She's too good for the people around her, but she also pretty much deserves what she gets.
I might have wished there was a bit more action, maybe a twist or two, but The Good Terrorist held my attention and Doris Lessing's writing had no real weakness other than a leisurely in-no-hurry-to-get-anywhere pace. This wasn't an exciting book and the plot is only there to make the characters do things while we get to know them, but the day-to-day mundanity of the story is deceptive, and if that's all you see, you're missing the point, which is the banality of evil and the obligation of anyone who wants to consider themselves a "good" person to not do nothing when other people are doing things you know are wrong. I'll definitely read more by Lessing; she delivers wonderful characterization with sharp, straight-faced black humor. This book is like a verbal confection of delicate (and indelicate) interpersonal dialog and nuanced character studies. With a bomb at the center.
Excellent reading by Nadia May, who turns breathless and shrill when Alice is getting excited, and down-to-earth and calm and properly British when Alice is being her more reasonable self, and basically injected the right degree of emotion into each scene, really bringing Alice and her inner life alive.
The Good Terrorist could have been written last night. Its details are that close, threat lurking subtly as but one of many possibilities . Lessing brilliantly stays aloof from judgment: the characters indight themselves with charm, but there's nothing charming about the book's relentless, Inevitable conclusion.