Women Writers Reading Challenge #34: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

(Sorry I don’t have a picture of the book–it was just one of the things I forgot to do before leaving on vacation. Picture ocean waves and the title on the cover, and you’ll get the idea.)

Generally (and I mean very generally, I can think of loads of exceptions), books about middle-aged white male protagonists don’t hold my attention for very long. As interesting as the characters may be and as well written as the books may be, I’ve tried and failed to get into such touted books as Catch 22 and Catcher in the Rye. The problem usually is that I don’t identify with or feel much sympathy for the main character who is usually, despite his situation, still among the most privileged members of his generation. And the self-pity, woe is me attitude is just kind of grating. Everything about Iris Murdoch’s book therefore was sure to lose me at page one, but the charmingly decayed house Shruff End on the little island in the English Channel and the enormous presence of the sea kept me hooked.

Charles Arrowby is a contradicting character. Sometimes he was infuriating at other times, endearing. He would say and think things that made me want to wring his neck, but then he was so vulnerable, so obviously lost in his own delusions, that it would bring me back.

The book is quite long, and moves slowly through Charles’ mind. It’s presented as an autobiography or memoir or almost journal, but for the most part proceeds like any novel, though a highly self-conscious one. It’s sort of hard to describe because of its contradictions, but taken as a whole it is a tightly woven character study of one man in the twilight years of his life. It is reflective, hopeful, and tragic. There’s a kind of wonderful magical quality to it as well as catalogues of the hopelessly mundane.

I’ve never read Murdoch before, but this is her 19th novel, the fourth to be nominated for the Booker prize, and the first to win it. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone in the mood for contemplation and entering another person’s world. I caution you that it doesn’t move quickly, and that you should be prepared to take your time.

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