Most helpful positive review
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Goodness shines out in a tawdry world.
on 9 January 2006
In the first half of this splendid book we are back more or less in the territory of the author's The Good Terrorist. Frances Lennox, a middle -aged woman living in a large Hampstead house, presides unassertively over a large dinner table frequented by a group of 1960s youngsters brought home by her sons and who mostly belong to the radical left. Her Stalinist (later Maoist) ex-husband (irresponsibly abandoning wives and children seriatim) also drops in from time to time when he is not being a delegate in plushy hotels abroad, and plays the guru to the youngsters. Some rooms in the house become almost permanent squats for the young people who have often fallen out with their middle class families. Frances herself is a middle class left-wing Liberal; but she is unwilling to assert herself even when some of those who avail herself of her hospitality abuse her for being bourgeois and for belonging to an exploiting class. The politics of these youngsters are depicted as crude, their rhetoric based on clich s and slogans, their behaviour as selfish and self-indulgent. For instance, they defend their shop-lifting as an anti-capitalist activity. Clearly this novel is in part a scathing political tract against the radical left. But it is much more than that, as the psychology of Frances, of her sons, her mother-in-law, and each of the other young people is displayed with an insight which makes this a great novel and a captivating read.
In the second half of the book, in the 1980s, we move to "Zimlia", a newly liberated African country. Sylvia, Frances' step-daughter, has trained as a doctor and has then gone to work in a desperately poverty- and AIDS-stricken village in that country. In Zimlia we meet again some of the other youngsters who had sat around Frances' hospitable table: two of them, Africans who had been exiles from the country before its independence, are now in with the corrupt and incompetent government; three others have become leading figures in wealthy NGOs, moving importantly from one international gathering to another, and distributing largesse to the corrupt government without troubling to make sure that the money reaches the people who most need it. Again any possible resentment a reader might feel about being exposed to another political tract is likely to be overcome by the sheer brilliance with which the setting, the circumstances and the characters are described. Here, too, one knows that Doris Lessing is burning with rage about intellectual and political corruption, but, though there is nothing subtle about the political level of the book, her craft is such that one becomes deeply involved with and interested in the many people she so vividly portrays. The Sweetest Dream of a better world that black and white radicals had hoped for is cruelly dispelled in the shadow of Stalin, Mao, and tin-pot dictators in Africa, and Doris Lessing seems to say that it is an illusion to think we can transform the world by politics, but that individual acts of goodness and unselfishness can create pools of light in the surrounding darkness.