A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I only need two words to describe this story: strange and wonderful. (I’m still going to write a whole review, I just wanted to show you I could be concise if I felt like it.) It’s a veritable train wreck of a relationship; you can’t look away. And maybe you don’t want to, schadenfreude kind of shows up here too. Martin Lynch-Gibbon isn’t as unlikable a character as Charles Arrowby was, (The Sea, The Sea) but he’s still a bit of a tool. He’s done much less to bring it on himself, so it’s easier to sympathize. Murdoch has also created an excellent primer on how not to open your marriage! (A primer on the wrong way to have any sort of marriage, really.) While this may or may not have been something you were wondering about, rest assured Murdoch’s characters have done the hard work for you and made almost all of the mistakes – sometimes several times over – so you don’t have to! If only all fictional characters were so thoughtful, the world would be a much better place. Thinking about cheating on your significant other? Read this book, and then don’t! It won’t end well! I’d get more specific, but it would spoil things and there were some good surprises in the story. Just be aware that these seemingly rational characters are, well, not. Murdoch does a brilliant job of writing characters at the limits of their emotions. She wraps their antics in this incredible writing that wouldn’t be out of place in a book of poetry. I started out reading A Severed Head missing her wonderful descriptions of the sea, but after a chapter I didn’t notice they were gone anymore. She’s filled this story with details about light, fires, and decor. It makes the landscape positively luxurious. It’s becoming one of my favourite things about her writing.

You know what bothered me even more than the rampant cheating did? This one tiny tidbit: the claim from the back cover blurb that Martin Lynch-Gibbon is married “to a woman old enough to be his mother.” We are told Martin and his wife’s respective ages in the story. Martin is 30 when he and Antonia get married. Antonia is the staggering age of 35. Five years older than him. How is that old enough to be his mother?? How is that an age difference even worthy of notice? Murdoch doesn’t speak of the age difference as though it matters, and while Antonia does mother Martin a bit he also “fathers” her (in the parental and not generative sense; how strange that those two terms have such vastly different connotations!) It’s obviously just the opinion of the individual who wrote the synopsis. If I ever meet them they are going to get a stern talking to. There’s no need for attitudes like that.

In spite of the gruesome title, there’s minimal violence in this book. Fisticuffs, mostly, but one attempted suicide that could be painful for sensitive readers. There’s a lot of emphasis on the womens’ appearances, but it’s matched pretty evenly with descriptions of the male characters so it’s not as grating. There is some suggestion of drunk driving.

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