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In her first signed novel since the mythical Canopus in Argos series, Lessing returns to reality--and to her considerable gifts for social observation and vivid characterization. Using a spectrum of left-wing characters, she focuses on the kinds of personal instability that would be drawn to--and solaced by--a terrorist stance. Lewis Carroll's Alice began by falling down a rabbit hole; Lessing's contemporary Alice--36, overweight, mixed-up, terrified of sex--began by being involved (since the 1960's) in squatter's rights and increasingly radical politics. Though celibrate, Alice lives with and for gay Jasper, a self-centered, politically pure neurotic (psychotic?) who has decided, as the novel opens, to make contact with the provisional IRA. Though early chapters show Alice's curious mixture of calm competence (she manipulates bureaucrats at the gas and water boards into supplying service to their new "squat") and infantile rage (she travels to her father's house one night expressly to throw a rock through the window, striking one of the young children of his second marriage), Alice is a mother-figure, not only to Jasper but to every waif that drifts into her new squat. Yet from the beginning there are frissons of instability: in Alice herself and in the web of relationships that quickly form in the household which Alice, quite unconsciously, dominates. These tensions increase as Jasper and Bert, titular heads of the group, become absorbed in plans for a car-bombing. Lessing offers a penetrating analysis of a sub-group (middle- and working-class political extremists) more often caricatured than characterized. The main focus is on the pathology of ideological "purity"--on how a "good" person like Alice, who is instinctively kind whenever one of her blind spots is not in operation, can arrive at an almost bland acceptance of random violence. The implied political message--as idiosyncratic as the quirky feminism of the Canopus series--seems to be that we don't really choose our political preferences; rather, they choose--and then control--us. The self-deluding Alice is not an easy character to spend time with, but her story is an extraordinary tour de force--a psychological portrait that's realistic with a vengeance. Altogether, this is a book which is strong as a diagnostic study of political motivation--and stronger still as an uncannily authentic character-study.
Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 1985
ISBN: 0307389960
Page count: 466pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1985


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