Written in 1985, this novel has been rereleased a number of times, most notably after the twin towers came down in 2001. However, the characters in the story, incompetent 'revolutionaries', are far removed from what nowadays we consider terrorists to be. Set in London in the early 80s, this is a time of economic downturn, high unemployment rates, squatter movements and lower social classes with, on the fringes, extensive support for socialism and communism.
I found the story extremely gripping, a real page turner, having a hard time to put it down and finishing the 400 or so pages in a few days. The setting, characters and politics all felt extremely well portrayed, very true to life, Lessing painting an accurate and pungent picture of the amateurishness of these self-styled revolutionaries from the 70s and early 80s. From a time when the Soviet Union was still considered a powerful player and socialism, if not communism, was still, to many, considered a viable alternative to Reagan's and Thatcher's rampant capitalism.
Some releases of the book come with an essay appended by the author which examines the kind of culture and language of the setting. Unfortunately, I had to do without.
The story follows Alice, a mentally unstable but also obsessive compulsive squatter with communist tendencies and a gift for resolving hairy situations, from getting materials in the house replaced to dealing with the council. At the start of the book, Alice and Jasper, a homosexual friend she has an irrational adoration for, have just moved out of the house occupied by Alice' mum and have moved into a dodgy squat, which Alice promptly turns around into decent quarters in a matter of days, using her upper-middle class background to successfully deal with the outside world.
The existing squatters, the squatters in the house next door, and most characters that end up in the house over the next months are all very anti-establishment and have communist tendencies. All wanting to bring down the system while abusing the system to stay alive, whether by being on the dole or by borrowing or stealing money from the 'horrible' bourgeois. And, of course, Alice herself, who seems to hate the petty middle class the most, herself comes from a typical middle class environment, her views being the archetypical stereotype, without, unfortunately, her discovering this.
After trying to support the Irish cause as well as trying to get recruited by Soviet intelligence, the group decides to go at it alone and fool around first building then planting a bomb in downtown London.
As said, I found the book a total page turner, but several things I couldn't help but wonder about:
+ This being the early 80s, with, specifically the main characters in the novel, not having easy access to telephones, how did these guys know of the many pickets and demonstrations going on around the area? How did they stay updated?
+ Money is a constant problem for Alice, as fixing up the house costs. Not much, but too much to pay out of her unemployment benefit, with her even struggling with trying to get money together to cook food for the inhabitants of the house.
Yet, all the time, everyone goes out for food, drinks or takeaway, regular takes taxis and rides the Underground. How is everyone paying for this?
+ Everyone in the book seems to be delusional about not only their ideologies but also about each others incompetencies. Though Alice is excellent in taking care of people, exactly like her mother, whom she despises, she has a completely irrational admiration for a lazy fool who takes every chance he can get to take money off her.
I find Lessing credible in her portraying the characters, so my question here is not one of criticism of the author, but of amazement in how the characters are able to continuously convince themselves of their own views' validity. Then again, more recent political development probably shows the validity of Lessing's assertions.
It's amazing to see that reviews from 1985 are actually online.
Also, I was aware of Lessing's African connection, having grown up in Southern Rhodesia and having been a long term campaigner against apartheid. What I didn't know is that Lessing was actually born in Persia, in Kermanshah.
Furthermore, Lessing herself went through a communist period in the early years of her career, so it makes me wonder if the Alice of this novel isn't in some way an alter ego of the author.
When she won the Nobel prize in 2007, she said "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush".