Neal Adolph's Reviews > The Good Terrorist

The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2015-reads, european, nobel-prize, woman-author

It was around March 5th that I discovered it was Women's History Month. I was reading a book back then - a leftover of Black History Month - that I wasn't much enjoying. I quickly set it aside. There is a lot of literature I want to read that is written by women. But I could tell that no fiction was going to lift me out of whatever reading malaise it was that I acquired after finishing James Baldwin's lovely "Go Tell It On The Mountain". I picked up Naomi Klein's latest book and read two hundred pages. I wasn't impressed just yet, but I can see it is building towards something. At least, I think I can see that. Anyways, this is a review of the book that I picked up after those two hundred, unsatisfying pages, suddenly feeling like I needed to really let my mind settle into fiction again.

The book was The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing.

There is much to be said about this book and its exploration of terrorism in the late twentieth century. It is a satire, perhaps. Or, perhaps it is more specifically an insulting depiction of radicalism, its disorganization, its dependence upon incomplete, broken humans who desire so much but are convinced that they desire nothing. Does this make any sense yet? I'm not sure. Doris does it so well though that, all of a sudden, somehow, it does. And it is beautiful.

As many reviews have shown, though, the real triumph in this book lies in the characters rather than the plot. It centres around a commune/squat in London and its rotating membership. And these characters are interesting, tragic figures. Spurned by life. Seeking success. Fomenting hatred. Getting along and refusing to get along. Lessing clearly recognized that they needed to be well-developed because, in the end, not much really happens in this book. Lots of small events, sure, but things only really pick up in the last hundred pages.

That doesn't mean the first 250 are bad pages. In fact, I think they are my favourite pages - the last few, while still very good, clearly moved the book in a different direction and, to my mind, the book was weakened somewhat as a result. That said, if the book started in satire, it also ended in satire. The middle was devoted to the characters.

And one character in particular. Alice Mellings, the narrator and protagonist. And the reader vacillates in their judgement of her. Sometimes she is the calm, precise, intelligent, thoughtful figure. The maternal character in the home who is caring for everybody when they need caring and preventing catastrophes when they need to be prevented. Also the figure who is most frequently overlooked, despite her incredible contributions to the community. Alice is also the character with whom you grow most impatient. She makes silly choices, and abuses the wrong people in her life. She is terribly weak in all the wrong ways. And when she falters she seems to falter in all the wrong moments. And, in the end, you decide she is an unreliable narrator, and you have to wonder if what she has told you is true or just some falsified memory. The thing is, Lessing builds her up to have these flaws right from the get go, but they are dominated, rather than balanced, by the many great things that Alice does for her community. So you are a bit disappointed in your own judgement of her character when you reach the end.

The frustrating thing was that I understood Alice so well. I related to her perfectly. I saw myself in her, and then momentarily recognized myself in her band of friends. But Alice, above all others in this novel, may be one of the great characters of all the novels I have read.

This is my second Lessing novel, but I'll definitely be reading more. A Briefing for a Descent into Hell or Shikasta will be next, and hopefully before the end of the calendar year. I was impressed by what I saw - a controlled, brilliant mind was at work here. One whose opinions are clear and precise, and whose understanding of humanity is equally refined but entirely conflicted.

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Reading Progress

March 23, 2015 – Started Reading
March 23, 2015 – Shelved
March 23, 2015 –
page 24
March 27, 2015 –
page 69
18.65% "Is it possible for a serious satire to exist? I can't help but wonder if that is what this is. Lessing is not a stylist - though you'll be surprised by the simple artistry of some of her sentences - but she is a great observer of humanity's web of being."
March 29, 2015 –
page 100
27.03% "there is an incredible intelligence and wit here - an astounding talent, really. I suspect Atwood was greatly influenced by Lessing, as I see some similar techniques. but Lessing handles those techniques so much better. she has become invisible - just a paralysed, acute observer of reality as chaos unfurls itself from the universe and lands on humanity."
April 4, 2015 –
page 175
47.3% "I'm enjoying this book a good deal, but I'm surprised at how slowly I'm reading it. It certainly isn't fast paced, but there is a lot of stuff happening in a short time span. What Lessing is doing with the protagonist is really quite breath taking - you never question her reliability, but you are always curious about her stability."
April 6, 2015 –
page 230
62.16% "These characters are incredibly rewarding. They could certainly come off as cliche, but they aren't. They are filled with complications and inconsistencies, variably weak and, when necessary, incredibly strong. Lessing's vision here is, perhaps, as wide as the world and as narrow as a house filled with squatters. There is something about humanity here."
April 9, 2015 –
page 278
75.14% "Last night this book sunk it's teeth into me.\n \n What a wonderfully realized character, this Alice Mellings. One who both confounds and to whom I can easily relate."
April 10, 2015 –
page 312
84.32% "This book has taken a surprising and sinister turn. Amazing how there was a moment of hope - just a moment - but how that managed to be destroyed by the very community that Alice has worked so hard to create. She was almost an individual, but then she was swallowed up by her comrades and is now, somehow, thrilled to be involved as a central figure. Perhaps even the most central.\n \n Lessing is brilliant."
April 11, 2015 – Finished Reading
April 13, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015-reads
April 13, 2015 – Shelved as: european
April 13, 2015 – Shelved as: nobel-prize
January 15, 2016 – Shelved as: woman-author

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Neal Adolph I've just decided that a lot of the richness of this novel is bound up in its material world. Yes, the characters are important. This is, after all, a character driven novel. But, in a tradition that almost seems lost, the dialogue and characters are closely connected to the environment around them. It might seem stuffy to some, but I think that is the wrong perspective - it is a book written in that same tradition that came out of Mann, where things were important as symbols of other things happening in the text. I see the same technique employed by William Golding, and many of the late-19th century masters. It adds a depth that a character-centric novel, one which forsakes the value of the physical world, sorely lacks.

message 2: by PGR (new)

PGR Nair Very nice review Neal. I love character centered novels and this one seems to be a good start for someone who hasn't read anything by her.

Neal Adolph I think it is a wonderful achievement. Lessing is certainly writing about hope and pain in an important way. In the end, though, this is a character study more than it is a satire. The environment of the story is almost incidental - an opportunity for Lessing to have shared what she thinks of humanity and, particularly, the women who bind us all together.

Apparently this is quite common for Lessing, based on a few essays I've read, and so I suspect that there are several really wonderful novels to start with. But, based on my experience, The Good Terrorist is a wonderful entry point.

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