18 May 2011

Review 25: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

The Sea, The Sea is a strange, almost fantastical, book. I read it on the recommendation of a colleague who is also an English teacher; I like reading other peoples favourite books as it tells you a bit more about them and also you often discover new books you love. The Sea, The Sea is a strange mix of the beautiful and the bizarre; there were some elements I thought were clever and moving and some I found ridiculous and melodramatic.

The Sea, The Sea is the story of arrogant, capricious Charles Arrowby, a retired London theatre director, who has moved into a derelict house by the sea in search of some quiet and isolation. He discovers that he has inadvertently moved to the same village as his childhood sweetheart, Hartley, whom he has loved in an abstract and idealised way since he was a teenager. Amidst various characters from his London life coming to visit him, Charles sets about trying to destroy Hartley's marriage and win her affections.

There's not really much more to the plot than that. Charles spends many, many pages talking about himself, his view on the world and his plans to 'rescue' Hartley from her marriage. The book is only 500 pages long but it took me a month to read. I enjoyed it whilst I was reading it but I rarely had the urge to pick it up when I wasn't. It's very wordy and not a book you can really skim read. I found parts of it very readable, to be honest, the parts where stuff actually happens.

I think it really all boils down to what you think of the character of Charles. He is, put plainly, an ass. Said colleague likes him anyway but I found myself just irritated by his smugness and idiocy. He is so impressed with himself but, for me, did not have enough loveableness to get past his flaws. He is obviously written as flawed, he is not supposed to be likeable but I don't think he ever really reaches anti-hero status, he's just a bit of a fool. Therefore, I found myself not really caring what happened to him and I found his attempts at stealing Hartley away rather abhorrent. I found the host of secondary characters far more appealing, although none of them were at all empathetic or particularly realistic. Maybe I move in the wrong circles but I have never met anyone even remotely like any of the characters in The Sea, The Sea.

The sea itself is a key element of the novel and is beautifully described at times as a type of metaphor for Charles, but this is sometimes rather broadly played. For example, at the beginning of the novel he thinks he sees a black sea monster in the waves and at the end he sees seals playing in the water, in case we didn't realise that he has achieved some level of peace of mind. There are also a few slightly bizarre mystical elements, from said sea monster to his Buddhist cousin, James who is written, fairly unsubtly, as Charles' alternative self. I found the mystical elements rather strange as it is definitely a novel set in England as we know it and I'm not sure if it's there as a comment on Charles' state of mind or we are supposed to believe they really happened.

All in all, a strange book which I found difficult to review as I'm not convinced of what I thought of it. I'm glad I've read it but I can't say it was my particular cup of tea and I'd be interested to hear others' opinions of it.


  1. I've felt like I should read something by this author since seeing the movie with Kate Winslet about her, but I feel like every review I've read of Murdoch's books is a bit mixed. Maybe I'll eventually get around to it.

  2. It seems that people who love her work, really love it so maybe you'll end up in that camp?!