“We’re the children of Europe. Sons and daughters of a violent civilisation. No one should be surprised if we choose to be violent.” So speaks one of a commune of well-educated Maoist revolutionaries as they stage an artistic happening in London in 1968. At the heart of this world are two sisters, Iris and Eva, young people disillusioned both with their free-thinking parents and by the capitalist world that proffers itself as the obvious alternative. Irish novelist Gavin McCrea has had the fruitful idea of juxtaposing their forays into revolutionary theatre with the ballets staged in communist China by Jiang Qing, the charismatic, ill-fated wife of Mao Zedong, whose filmed performances formed a centrepiece of Adam Curtis’s determinedly ambitious documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

This is McCrea’s second novel, following the rightly acclaimed Mrs Engels, which told the story of Engels’s time in London from the point of view of his illiterate quasi-wife, the Irish Lizzie Burns. In that novel, McCrea dazzled us with Lizzie’s voice; it sang off the page, her linguistic freshness partly resulting from her gifted phrase-making. Here the voices are quieter, but McCrea creates a pungent idiom for Jiang that gives forceful life to her character. “I purged myself on to their paper and returned it fragrant with my vomit and my shit,” she writes in an imaginary letter from prison. “Never will they get what they want from me.” Essentially, McCrea’s new book is a capacious work of social realism – appropriately enough, given its curiosity about the art produced in the final stages of communism. It is full-throated in its evocation of London in the 60s, but also attentive to psychological states (there are some particularly impressive descriptions of tripping on LSD).

Gavin McCrea … his committed communists are megalomaniacs, yet have allure. Photograph: Gary Doak/Alamy

Themes and questions flit across sections, like the Chinese lanterns that so many of the characters love to make. At its largest, the book asks what the role of art is in radical politics, and whether having a social or an artistic vision ennobles us as individuals. Almost as important are the questions about motherhood, given vitally tender life in both countries. In China, there is Jiang and her daughter Li Na. In London, there are Iris and Eva and the absent mother whose attention they never stop competing for, and whose eventual reappearance sends them both into a violent frenzy in the book’s brilliant, psychedelic climax.

Motherhood is a rich topic here partly because parenting and family life are such fraught areas in communist thinking. In some moods, Jiang follows the party line in finding family loyalty incomprehensible: “What utility did these attachments have in revolution, where actions, not blood, proved one’s worth?” In a similar spirit, Iris tells a friend that “the best day of my life was when I learned that love isn’t a duty, that I didn’t have to love anyone, including my mother”. Yet Jiang persists in seeking out the daughter who will ultimately betray her, longing for affection. And Iris always has a feeling of missing her mother – not the individual woman but the idea of a mother, “a warmth or a certain kind of touch. An order and cleanliness in a room”. This is the figure of the mother familiar to us from psychoanalytic thinking, who continues to shape our actions however much we resist her. The book seems to be on Eva’s side when she tells her sister that all her most rebellious political actions are motivated by the desire to attack the mother she has rejected.

Does this mean, then, that in McCrea’s world the political is merely personal, that we fool ourselves when we consider our personal desires secondary to our drive to transform society? The strength of both these novels about moments of communist history is that he makes the visionaries he describes so wholly human. In doing so he undermines the more forthright communists as political thinkers, showing how fully they fail to live according to their own ideals.

Yet this doesn’t negate them entirely: McCrea evidently finds the communist vision compelling. This is partly because it yields such rewarding narrative materials, but what makes these novels really interesting is his underlying sympathy with the substance of the vision. He uses his feel for novelistic psychology and family dynamics to breathe rich life into the communist project. In Engels’s 1870s, in Mao’s 1950s and in the hopes of the 68ers, there’s a promise of a better world that these novels find more appealing than deceptive. The committed communists in his novels are megalomaniacs, all of them, yet they have an allure, if only because they cut through the torpor and bourgeois mediocrity around them. McCrea is writing into a culture that hasn’t found a better alternative to these ideals. He is wary of the violence, he knows that horror is most dangerous when it’s disguised as idealism, but he can’t quite let go of these people. It feels right that in reading this dazzlingly ambitious yet modestly human novel, we should be drawn to them in our turn.

Lara Feigel is the author of The Group (Bloomsbury). The Sisters Mao by Gavin McCrea is published by Scribe (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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