The Sea, The Sea — Iris Murdoch

Murdoch’s 19th novel, and her fourth to be nominated for the Booker, is a first-person account narrated by Charles Arrowby, a reclusive theatre director who has retired to a remote location by the sea in order to write his memoirs. Throughout the novel he is confronted by people who played significant roles in his life, and becomes entangled in increasingly absurd and complicated events.

In theory, this is a novel dealing with the themes of vanity, self-deception, and the redemptive power of love and friendships through a darkly comic medium. In reality, the book is something of a nonsense, relying entirely on contrived situations, coincidences, and implausible characters. A book narrated in the first-person inevitably sinks or swims depending on the quality of its narration and, while Arrowby isn’t designed to be likeable, he is not believable either. The whole affair has the feeling of aspiring towards melodrama while retaining the trappings of “literary fiction”. With a good smattering of campness and more obviously comic moments, it could have succeeded. As it is, I felt I had wasted my time.

That said, there was one light in the dark. The first 80 or so pages (titled “Prehistory”) contained some exceptional writing, with remarkably evocative descriptive passages of the sea and coast. I would strongly encourage you to read that section; just as I would strongly caution you against reading the rest.

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