Now this was good, an excellent novel which, if it wasn’t quite as long as it is, could be read several times in order to savour every last bit of meaning from its carefully constructed prose. What is it about? Well, lots of things, but mostly what it’s like to be human and subject to the whims and fancies of the heart. There’s a strong element of spirituality throughout the novel too but the increases towards the end. And by the time I’d got there, I was really enjoying the writing.
Charles Arrowby has retired from a life in the theatre. He settles himself down in a somewhat malevolent house by the sea in a remote location. He thinks he’s left his past and his life in London behind but, unbeknown to him, he’s come closer to it than he at first realises. The village nearby holds someone who he thought he’d never see again and, when they meet, his entire world, and the rest of the novel, is turned upside down.
His London life almost literally moves in with him as various friends and ex-lovers turn up to help him through it all. Their roles are almost as fascinating as that of Charles himself who you can never quite bring yourself to sympathise with. He is obsessive and desperate and, if we’re honest, we’ll all recognise these qualities in ourselves to a greater or lesser extent. Maybe its the fact that you see yourself so accurately portrayed that you find yourself slipping so easily from sympathy to scorn as his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.
Murdoch does a great job in arraying around Charles a full range of humanity who all have their own take on how he should live the rest of his life and face the dilemma that is consuming him. Again, you are able to reflect on your own reactions to them, their advice and his response to it
And all the while the sea sits offshore brooding and the house plays its tricks on him. The esoteric takes on a much stronger role as the novel nears its completion especially with the increasingly important role of his cousin James who, in himself, is one very enigmatic character who is drawn, but only very softly, in 4B pencil.
Coming after the atrocious Citadel and before the fairly tame The Marriage Plot which I’m now reading, the sublime writing of Murdoch stands out even more than it would have done. Here we have a great novelist writing a very complex novel which, on the surface, can be taken as a simple story. At the same time, you know that there are a warren of other alleys you could explore in the writing. It’s this multi-layered aspect which makes you realise you are in the presence of someone who, unlike Kate Mosse, deserves the title of author and a prize like the Booker.
Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style
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