I tend to really like Iris Murdoch novels, and though I sometimes worry about how similar several of her novels are to one another, I still move forward. The set up of this novel immediately began to prickle that sense of familiarity. There’s a youngish set of potential ingenue type characters and there’s an older and revered master of some kind of field and there’s bound to be cris-crossing love triangles and or quadrangles. So going in, I figured, well this one will be similar to The Message to the Planet or Flight from the Enchanter or The Good Apprentice, it ended up being different from all these in a few key ways. For one, the best of Iris Murdoch novels are written in first person. She’s a master at creating distinct narrative voices and allowing those voices to carry, destroy, obscure, or force their way through the novels. So novels like The Sea, The Sea, Under the Net, A Severed Head, and The Black Prince have these kinds of forceful and fetching and sometimes even demonic narrators. This novel also has a curious and interesting narrator, one who doesn’t really reveal themselves until 50 pages in and who acts as a mindful and conscientious guide through the plot.
The plot here is: in an English spa town not far from London, not known for anyone much famous but a health-cure institute, a revered philosopher is making a return to the town. He left decades before, is not really friends with anyone, but has some serious connections to various people in the town and a specific task he’s looking to work through. The novel, though, begins with a horrific car crash and would-be drowning that proceeds from a vicious yelling match between George McCaffrey and his wife Stella. This accident then becomes a focal point for the town gossip and for the narrative gaze. The whole novel doesn’t revolve around this story, but it does generate from it.
Like I said, I liked this one a lot. I will hold on to this one as one of the top-tier Murdochs. I am not in love with it the way I am with a few others but it’s a very strong novel that is rewarding at multiple turns.