Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Iris Murdoch is some kind of magician. The fact that she manages to make the intolerable Charles Arrowby into a sympathetic character in under 100 pages after 400 pages of him being a world-class tool is almost miraculous. He truly is pathologically self-absorbed. It’s almost comforting; because no matter how selfish you’ve been in your life there’s no way you were as bad as Arrowby. Or as eccentric; I spent hours (well, minutes) ranting about this his elitist, ridiculous cooking habits. Let me share them with you now:
“It gradually became clear to me that guzzling large quantities of expensive, pretentious, often mediocre food in public places was not only immoral, unhealthy, and unaesthetic, but also unpleasurable…my guests were offered simple joys chez moi. What is more delicious than fresh hot buttered toast, with or without the addition of bloater paste? Or plain boiled onions with a little cold corned beef if desired?” (9) “Tinned macaroni cheese jazzed up with oil, garlic, basil, and more cheese, and a lovely dish of cold boiled courgettes. (Courgettes should never be fried, in my opinion.)” (154)
Guys, he’s eating cold boiled zucchini. That’s what a courgette is. He’s not serving his guests homemade, freshly toasted bread with artisan butter from the local creamery. He’s buying it from the store. You can laugh, but this was when I first started to suspect I was dealing with a monster.
In addition to his cringe-worthy dinner menus, Arrowby has an occasionally shaky grasp on reality. He hallucinates. He is almost incapable of comprehending that people are separate beings from him and want things entirely different from what he wants. When someone tells him something he doesn’t want to hear, he just doesn’t hear it. Despite all this, Murdoch grabs him out of the jaws of whatever hell literary characters exist in and turns him into someone I could almost understand. He grows. Possibly for the first time in his life. Murdoch accomplishes all this without resorting to sappy melodrama. She has it just creep up on Arrowby, take hold in spite of backsliding. I was very surprised to find at the end of the novel that I liked Arrowby. But my very favourite part of this book is Murdoch’s incredible descriptive passages about the sea. They are truly spectacular. I picture Murdoch sitting by the ocean for months with a notebook, recording every twitch and flicker the water made, to be able to represent it so well here. The Sea, The Sea is worth reading for the ocean descriptions alone. Schadenfreude about Arrowby’s richly deserved comeuppance is just a bonus.
Final notes: this book needs content warnings for drowning and kidnapping, as well as general misogyny and subtle hints of racism. Like toxic sprinkles.