09 July 2008

The Good Terrorist, by Doris Lessing

This book was mesmerizing. Absolutely incredible. It's so subtly crafted that even though nothing really seems to be happening, it's absolutely seething with life. The prose is riveting. It starts off fairly mundane and gradually sucks you in, building up tension in this really amazing way.

The story follows the gradual metamorphosis of a group of somewhat bumbling political activists into a terrorist cell, largely through the perspective of one woman. The stunning subtlety with which it registers the ethical undertones of what's going on in absolutely amazing. Although most of the text is narrated, indirect discourse style, from the perspective of Alice, the main character (while brilliantly revealing her limitations with all the rigour of Flaubert, but less of the bite), Lessing also uses the interactions between Alice and the other people in her life to give you another view of events. The gradual shift to violence is registered in this really intriguing way by occasional shifts into a kind of proleptic retrospective, a curious sort of entry into history, I think. Really, the prose is absolutely masterful.

It's interesting, in one of the lectures I attended recently on Irish and British feminism, the lecturer, recounting her own feminist exploits of the 80s, mentioned that they were all avidly reading Lessing. And she said that re-reading her now, she's astounded by how un-feminist it seems. Indeed, in this book, the main character seems, to a woman of today, to be horrifically kind of dependent, devoted to a guy who's totally worthless and completely unable to realize that she deserves much better. I really can't tell if an awareness of this is built into the narrative itself - I think it is - or if I'm reading it anachronistically. There is, for instance, a moment when Alice's mother giver her a lecture on how she had wanted so much more for her daughter, more than she herself had, and more than her daughter has achieved, which is incredibly poignant. So why, one might wonder, were these feminists so devotedly reading these books? I think it's because it is a really powerful account of what it's like to be a woman. The author may not have an idea, yet, of what it's like to be a woman who doesn't define herself largely in relation to the men in her life, and assess herself based upon how pleasing she is to them, but she does have the ability to portray a woman sympathetically and realistically while simultaneously registering the tragedy of her position.

It's an amazing book, and just as politically relevant now as it was when it was written, I think. Highly recommended.

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