I never read Doris Lessing. A friend, who is a dramatist, told me she was among her favorite writers. Ms. Lessing is well-known. A Noble Prize winner for Literature, “The Good Terrorist” was short listed for the Booker Prize. None of this mattered to Ms. Lessing. She thought such prizes were a curse to writers.
Strong characters, particularly women, are the hallmark of her writing. She did characterize herself as a feminist. Her strength is the ability to write a well told story. The characters are strong and memorable. She was faulted for not being a stylist; a greater prose writer. This is fair, if that is all that matters. There are writers who strength is prose; others who are story tellers; and a few who are both. This book is the proverbial page-turner. I don’t know if it is part autobiographical, or if it is drawn from the Communist period of her life, before she later disavowed it. Daughter and mother in “The Good Terrorist” reflect both.
Ms. Lessing’s description of personalities inherent in protest or other organization groups is universal and timeless. The principle character, Alice Mellings, is the product of a middle class background as are many in her faux radical group. She is closer to the working class than the others, many of whom actors from the upper class. The male leaders of this group are summertime revolutionaries: one day Communists, the next day IRA. They are bottom tier; never accepted by those who are true “revolutionaries”. The women in this group are subordinate, though superior; good to sleep with, but they cannot be titular leaders. Alice is the doer of the group. She is recognized by those who are the true “revolutionaries” as one they want to recruit. Alice however, is middle class at heart. Her relationship with her parents disintegrates because though in her 30s she is still voluntarily and because of stealing from them, still supported by them. The whole group is.
Alice’s mother, Dorothy, like Ms. Lessing, was married at 19. Dorothy like Alice went through her anti-government period, only to realize later in life that everything was rubbish. Alice does not see herself in Dorothy. She also cannot separate herself from Jasper, her homosexual parasitic boyfriend, with whom she is in love. Ms. Lessing describes women with all their strengths and weaknesses.
Dorothy knows that most protest groups are merely social. There are a few in each group who are committed and do most of the work, while the others show up for the thrills; cheap dates. In the end, Alice’s group demonstrates that it can cause damage, but it seems as if their mission, like spoiled children, was only to be recognized.
Ms. Lessing was versatile. A writer of novels, short stories, plays, non-fiction, poetry and her autobiography.”The Golden Notebook” is one of her more well-known novels, but it is “The Fifth Child” that I may read the next time I read her. She had an invalid child and “The Fifth Child” concerns the birth of a demonic child and its impact on an upper middle class family.
If you like a good story, well told, pick up “The Good Terrorist”.