Title: The Sea, The Sea
Author: Iris Murdoch
Rating: 5 out of 5
First sentence: The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine.
The Sea, the Sea starts out in the form of a journal, written by Charles Arrowby, a newly retired playwright/actor/director, who has adjourned to an old house outside a small village on the English coastline. He has decided to leave the London scene for good, and spends his time cooking simple meals--poached eggs on nettles, spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill, porridge with brown sugar and cream, and vegetarian stew--and diving into the sea for daily swims.
The beginning of the book sets this scene, describing his meals, daily activities, and his new home in an impromptu, journalistic style. Then, about 50 pages in, two things change. First, we see Charles for the first time from an outside perspective, through the letter he receives from Lizzie, an old flame. Second, Charles spots his long-lost childhood love, Hartley, in the local village. As the book shifts focus to Charles somewhat bizarre quest to destroy Hartley's marriage and re-claim her for himself, Murdoch shifts to a more straightforward narrative technique.
The opening scenes of Charles' adjusting to a life of retirement helped me as a reader to retain a semblance of sympathy for a character that becomes quite despicable. Although I detested his actions (he seems to make the wrong decision at every turn, and succeeds in lashing out at everyone around him), I could see the unacknowledged hurt and suffering that spurred him to take those actions. I really loved the gothic undertones; there were parts of the story that sent shivers down my spine and were very unnerving, in a way that most modern horror stories fail to achieve.
At one point, Charles' cousin asks him "What is the truth anyway?" And, I spent much of the novel trying to figure that out. I never did quite succeed, but I believe that is part of Iris' point. I also loved that the sea is a character itself, and we see its many emotions: cruel, gentle, and playful, amongst others, through the course of the novel. The story was very much a page turner, and I would definitely recommend it to others!
"Jealousy is perhaps the most involuntary of all strong emotions. It steals consciousness, it lies deeper than thought. It is always there, like a blackness in the eye, it discolours the world." (p.84)