Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch

Title: The Sea, The Sea
Iris Murdoch
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)


Laura said...

Glad you liked this one, I did as well. And I agree Charles became quite despicable ... and delusional!

Lisa said...

Oh, this one does sound good. Thanks for the review. I think I may just be in the mood for this type of book now.

Charley said...

Huh, I've never heard of this book, but it sounds quite interesting, and I enjoyed your review. I like when authors use natural elements - like the sea in this one, for example - as a character, reflecting human emotions or enhancing the mood of a situation.

Teddy Rose said...

Great review. I'm not sure if this one is for me or not. My f2f book club read 'The Green Knight' together and I could barley get through it. Have you read 'The Green Knight'? If so how would you compare the 2? Did you also give it a 5?

Thomas said...

This is one of my favortie Murdoch novels. I took special delight in the descriptions of his food. Lots of tinned things if I remember correctly. I might be confusing it with A Word Child by Murdoch which described some really horrible meals seemingly with a straight face. I love your blog.

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