By Doris Lessing
New York: Vantage Books, 1985
ISBN # 0-394-74629-5 (paper)
456 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2012

Alice Mellins is a 36 year old single woman who would probably describe herself as a left-wing radical with strong desires to be on the front lines of an overthrow of England’s capitalistic economy and oppressive social system. She is, in fact, both more and less. For some 15 years she has lived in couple with Jasper. He has more appetite for spearheading a violent overthrow of government and social order, but is an utterly inept revolutionary.

As the novel opens Alice and Jasper have recently left her mother’s home where they had lived for several years. Neither has ever held a job, both are on social security (British financial aid to the poor) and are looking for new housing. They are resolved to find a “squat” (vacant state owned home which they can legally occupy until it is to be torn down).

The two have lived in squats before and Alice turns out to be a marvel in seeking the legal permissions, getting the various utilities turned on and organizing the house. Slowly, over the next few weeks 8-10 different folks move into the squat and begin to settle into their would-be revolutionary lives. They try to form a government of the whole which makes decisions about what goes on in the squat and even what sort of political agenda they adopt and act out.

The novel seems to me to really be more about the person Alice, than about the revolutionary commune. The story-line appears to be driven by Jasper and Alice’s desire to create the CCU – Communist Centre Union – to be a particularly British communist group. However, as I read the story it seems to be more about the person of Alice Mullins than about this “squat group” itself.

Doris Lessing seems to have fun with the squat residents, creating a group of utterly inept revolutionaries with huge dreams and pathetic and destructive actions.

I found this aspect of the novel very familiar. In the mid-1960s I was in a similar position as the squat crowd. My own preferences were decidedly non-violent, even pacifistic, but in large measure I think we were terribly ineffectual and astonishingly naive, yet filled with our own self-importance. Lessing hammers home the ineffectual activities and dead-end ideology. It’s an exquisite treatment.

However, the great brilliance of THE GOOD TERRORIST is Lessing’s creation of Alice. She is one of the most interesting characters of fiction I have ever read. Most characters seem to be better or worse expositions of some “type.” In Alice Doris Lessing has created one of the most “real” fictional characters I have ever read; perhaps the very best. Alice is a mass of contradictions: an angry and bitter revolutionary, brilliant con artist when dealing with authorities, a seemingly confused daughter, both loving and hating her mother, and a child willing to steal large amounts of money from her father with the ease of swatting a mosquito. She lives in the squat – and not for the first time – and unlike the others, she successfully and relentlessly works to create a “home” not unlike the middle to upper class homes most of the other “revolutionaries” came from.

In short she seems to me one of the most real, believable, convincing and complex characters I’ve ever come across in fiction.

The novel is entertaining and interesting but challenging at the same time. The ineptitude of the squat team brings home both many of the problems connected to modern capitalism and of the tremendous difficulty to bring about any significant fundamental changes in any society.

I highly recommend the novel to all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett