Lessing's latest is grimly ironic tale of good intentions gone wrong

The Good Terrorist, by Doris Lessing. New York: Knopf. 375 pp. $16.95. Doris Lessing's first novel, ``The Grass Is Singing,'' was published in 1950, the year after she left her home in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia to settle in England. Since then, she has produced a massive body of fiction, ranging from an earthy, almost documentary style of social realism to the extraplanetary heights of mythic invention.

Her autobiographical five-novel series, ``Children of Violence,'' chronicled the history of a heroine with the weightily significant name of Martha Quest, concluding in the apocalyptic year 2000. Lessing's best-known novel, ``The Golden Notebook,'' published in 1962, was later hailed as a central text of feminism, despite Lessing's insistence that her intentions had been far more broadly political than the aims of feminists. From 1979 to 1983, the five novels of her science fiction series, ``Canopus in Argus: Archives,'' appeared at the rate of one a year, winning her a new audience, while perhaps losing her some of her old one. And recently, wondering what sort of reception would be accorded her work when judged solely on its own merits, apart from her name and reputation, Lessing wrote two realistic novels under the pseudonym ``Jane Somers.'' They were, incidentally, well received.

Lessing's latest novel, ``The Good Terrorist,'' is pure, unadulterated realism: powerful, effective, and page-turningly suspenseful. Set in today's London, it is the story of Alice Mellings, a self-effacing, hard-working, polite, and capable woman of 36, who sometimes looks like a matron of 50, but more often like a pudgy adolescent of 12 or 13.

Alice considers herself a committed radical. She has lived in communes all over Britain for the past 15 years. More recently she and her boyfriend, Jasper, have been living with her mother. But, as the novel opens, they have just quarreled with Mrs. Mellings and decamped. Their aim is to set up a squatters' commune in a house slated for demolition. Alice's fight to save this house, to transform it from a disaster area into a home, seems at first to be the main theme of the novel.

It is easy to sympathize with Alice as we see her at work, struggling resourcefully to create cleanliness, order, and comfort from the chaos and filth of this house, which has been ``officially'' vandalized by Council workmen, who were told to destroy plumbing, electricity, and other fixtures to discourage squatters from taking over the abandoned property.

Gazing at the deliberately created chaos, Alice can scarcely believe that people could do such a thing. What kind of people could they be? she keeps asking herself.

We also sympathize with Alice when we see how her fellow radicals exploit her, denigrating her contributions even as they take full advantage of all she provides: curtains, carpets, running water, fresh paint, nourishing food, and the lion's share of the money needed to finance the whole, supposedly cooperative venture. Clearly, Alice is a builder, not a destroyer. If her radical politics involve her in evil, her intentions are good.

Or are they? The sympathy we feel for Alice finally makes Lessing's portrait of this ``good terrorist'' all the more devastating.

Slowly, but inevitably, we come to see the full extent of Alice's unsuspected destructiveness. At first, she seems no worse than a mild parasite, living on handouts from her liberal, well-meaning parents. Before long, however, she is actually stealing from them, breaking into her mother's house and her father's business to take furnishings and money. Toward the end, we learn that the cumulative effect of her actions has been to reduce her middle-class family to the brink of poverty and ruin.

Meanwhile, Alice's political comrades, members of a tiny communist splinter group, try unsuccessfully to link up with the Irish Republican Army. Two of the men visit the Soviet Union, where they fail to impress the KGB as spy material. Alice herself is gradually caught in a web of powers more complicated than she realizes.

Alice and her comrades end up building a bomb of their own, which they detonate on a busy London street. Amid the blood and chaos, the pointless destruction and carnage that result, we find ourselves recalling Alice's own question: What kind of people can they be who would do such a thing? By the end of this gritty, tautly written, grimly ironic book, we know the answer all too well.

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