Jane Rogers revisits Doris Lessing

Jane Rogers revisits Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, a novel she was first drawn to when she was living in a squat

I first read Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist in 1987, two years after it was published. I thought it was a surprising book for Doris Lessing to have written: my sense of her territory was Africa, women, and a fascination with the exploration of inner worlds. There was always something expansive, even exotic, about her fiction.

There is nothing exotic about The Good Terrorist. It is a novel in unsparing close-up, featuring a cast of damaged and disaffected characters, living in squalor in a very real London. Living, in fact, in a squat rather like one I lived in briefly in 1974. We too had a grand, vandalised house, with a cemented-up bath and a shifting population. I don't think any of us were terrorists, but there was certainly that rebellious, angry feel to the household, which called itself a commune; there was the same contemptuous rejection of bourgeois family life.

So to begin with I was fascinated by The Good Terrorist because it took a domestic situation I had known, and pushed it to an extreme. Lessing is exploring the territory where the personal becomes political (and when I understood that, I realised that it is indeed a sister book to her earlier novels, to books such as The Grass is Singing, where the evils of a political system, apartheid, are exposed through close examination of individual lives). In The Good Terrorist she shows us the point where the heaped-up disappointments and hopes and contradictions of individual lives coalesce into wilfully murderous public action.

The plot is simple, but each time I read this novel I'm impressed by the compulsive power of the story-telling. Alice is a founding member of the Communist Centre Union, a leftwing group committed to revolutionary action (albeit careful to disassociate itself from Stalin). The comrades are living in filth in a house scheduled for demolition. At first, suspense centres on the house: will Alice be able to rid it of gallons of raw sewage, to hack cement out of the toilet, to repel the police, to clear the rubbish and restore water and electricity, and prevent major fallouts between antagonistic members of the household, before the council meeting that must decide its fate? And as this race against time accelerates, other questions are set ticking; why is Alice so obsessed with creating a home? Why does she dote on the odious Jasper? How will the IRA react to Bert and Jasper's naive offer of assistance? Will the apolitical Jim, who was the first to move into the derelict house and welcomed all comers, get thrown out? Who are the mysterious comrades next door, and are they really burying explosives in the garden?

Once the house is temporarily saved, the question of how and where the group can make their mark becomes the racing engine of the plot, and the novel moves into darker territory. The "professionals" (who may be KGB, or IRA, or Special Branch) are closing in; Alice becomes a thief, Faye attempts suicide, Philip is killed, parcels of gun parts are delivered in the middle of the night. Moving on inexorably to the detonation of the bomb itself, with its random destruction of innocent lives.

The key to Alice's character is her perverted relationship with her mother. In 1985 I had become obsessed with the contradictions of motherhood, and explored them in a novel. (It was then that I wrote to Lessing telling her how important her books were to me, and asking if she minded me echoing her title in The Ice Is Singing. She replied, magnificently, "I think you will find it is TS Eliot to whom we are both indebted.") But it wasn't until I reread The Good Terrorist in the early 90s that I realised that it is as unsparing and incisive about motherhood as it is about the extreme left. Alice's need to go to any lengths to see her comrades eating happily together around the big kitchen table is motherly. Her protectiveness of deadly Jasper is motherly, and she even acknowledges that while she is with him she can never have a child. When she hugs him it is as though she held a wraith, something cold and wailing, a lost child. When Jim is about to start his new job, Alice thought she was rather like a mother, making sure a child had eaten before going off to school. In the final confrontation between Alice and her mother, Dorothy, Dorothy's cruellest retort is to reveal the similarity between them: "I thought ... I won't have Alice stuck in my position, no qualifications for anything. But it turned out you spend your life exactly as I did. Cooking and nannying for other people. An all-purpose female drudge."

Motherhood here is terrible: for poor Dorothy, giving and giving to her crazily selfish daughter, until she is reduced to bleak poverty. For Alice, giving and giving (financially and emotionally) to cruel Jasper, who occasionally rewards her with a crumb of love - permission to put her sleeping bag along the same wall as his. The theme is echoed in the lesbian relationship between Roberta, comforting mother figure, and Faye, the pretty, naughty child who harms Roberta in the most effective way she can, by blowing herself up. Motherhood is presented as an obsessive need to love and protect those who seem weaker and less adequate than yourself, and yet who reject and hurt you. Alice's motherliness is even applied to the act of terror itself; after the bomb has exploded she pities those who don't understand the necessity for the outrage. "Alice sat with tears in her eyes, thinking, Poor things, poor things, they simply don't understand! - as if she had her arms around all the poor silly ordinary people in the world." Motherhood has become a perversion.

Rereading the book now, in the light of the London terrorist attacks on July 7, I see it as an example of fiction going where factual writing cannot: exposing, in all their blinkered self-righteous rage, a group of people who want to smash the society they live in. The media image of a terrorist is shark-like in its simplicity - which is why it's terrifying: the notion of a person so driven by one idea (be it that the Brits must get out of Northern Ireland, or that revenge must be taken on the west for Muslim deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Palestine) that he or she can sacrifice everything else, even love of life itself, to that single idea is appalling.

Yet such shark-people are rare, as Lessing shows us; her terrorists are contaminated by the muddle of being human, have parents they rebel against, have suffered injustices, have maternal impulses and physical needs, and a burning need for identity and recognition. This is not to suggest for a moment that Lessing demands sympathy for her characters; this is no touchy-feely book to help us understand the poor things who are driven to such extremes. It is a witty and furious book, angry at human stupidity and destructiveness, both within the system and without. It shows us people who commit an evil act and it shows how that evil springs out of our own society. It connects us to it, while condemning it. It makes any kind of complacency impossible.

· Jane Rogers's latest novel is The Voyage Home (Abacus)

Jane Rogers

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lisa Allardice interviews Doris Lessing

A life in writing: The Golden Notebook made Doris Lessing a reluctant feminist icon in 1962, but her many works since then have often confounded her disciples. Her latest novel is no exception.

Interview by Lisa Allardice

20, Jan, 2007 @10:24 AM

Article image
The Golden Notebook: multiple narratives
John Mullan on Doris Lessing’s use of multiple narratives in The Golden Notebook.

John Mullan

13, Jan, 2007 @11:48 PM

Review: Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing

Review: Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing
A beautiful reflection on how we embroider and unpick our parents' lives, says Isobel Montgomery

Isobel Montgomery

21, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Review: The Cleft by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing's parable of slobbering walrus-women, The Cleft, puzzles Ursula K Le Guin.

Ursula K Le Guin

10, Feb, 2007 @2:02 PM

Article image
Jessie Greengrass: 'Frog and Toad Are Friends contains one of the best jokes ever written'
The author on underrated ‘great of feminist literature’ Gaudy Night, looking forward to every Ian Rankin novel, and never finishing Middlemarch

Jessie Greengrass

19, Mar, 2021 @10:00 AM

Doris Lessing's acceptance speech for her Nobel Prize for Literature

Last night Doris Lessing, aged 88, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech she recalls her childhood in Africa and laments that children in Zimbabwe are starving for knowledge, while those in more privileged countries shun reading for the 'inanities' of the internet

Doris Lessing

08, Dec, 2007 @11:54 PM

Article image
Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook, 50 years on

Lessing's radical exploration of communism, female liberation, motherhood and mental breakdown was hailed as the 'feminist bible' and reviled as 'castrating'. Four generations of writers – Diana Athill, Margaret Drabble, Rachel Cusk and Natalie Hanman – reflect on what it means to them

06, Apr, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
From Donna Tartt to Irvine Welsh: 10 great novels about friendship
Urban junkies, competitive mothers, adolescent girls caught in the world of Charles Manson ... Lara Feigel picks her 10 favourites

Lara Feigel

04, Jul, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
The parent trap: can you be a good writer and a good parent?
Doris Lessing left her marriage and children to write. Seventy-five years on, Lara Feigel examines the author’s maternal ambivalence and explores her own struggle to balance motherhood and freedom

Lara Feigel

24, Feb, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Doris Lessing’s MI5 file: was she a threat to the state?
The security services set out to ensnare Lessing. But they weren’t sure where she lived, why she went to Communist party meetings or even whether her nickname was Tigger or Trigger. Lara Feigel interrogates the secret archives

Lara Feigel

13, Nov, 2015 @8:30 AM