on 6 February 2004
This is by far my favourite in the Murdoch ouevre. A love story that is refreshing in its originality and highly entertaining. Hilary Burde, an Oxford educated civil servant leads a chameleon life in London, visiting different friends on different evenings according to a strict timetable. A figure of fun to his colleagues and married friends, a gallant knight to his sister, an irritating yet compelling friend to an associate, Hilary acts out these (self)imposed roles to varying degrees of success. It is not until he meets his nemesis, Gunter and Lady Kitty that he really begins to live. This novel perhaps has more 'plot' than many of Murdoch's other works, taking many twists and turns, but still contains many of her brilliant observations on the human condition and human nature and above all Love. It is here that we find the belief that is central to Murdoch's philosophy, that it is only through the experience of Love (and not carnal love) that we can truly claim to have lived. Anything that is a substitute simply will not do- it becomes nothing more than 'endless cups of tea', as Hilary writes to his fiancee. Yet the pervailing presence of this potentially saving love is overshadowed by the sinister image of Peter Pan in Kensignton gardens around which much of the action is played out. Such a contrast of optimism and resignation is central to the novel and each of these very different moods make deep connections with the reader.The end of the book fails it a little. It is tempting to call it meta tragic yet it carries with it an air of inevitability, managing to retain its comic elements and failing to destroy the new found optimism in the book.
I reccommend this novel to all Murdoch fans and to those who are new to her work. Although typical of her style it is less 'heavy' than many of her other works, treating philosophy and religion with a lighter hand and concentrating on the more accessibe arena of human nature. Please read it!
Apart from being a brilliant story teller Iris has a remarkable talent for observing the complexities (and contradictions) of human nature and conveying her philosophical views in a subtle and entertaining manner. In A Word Child the central character, Hilary Burde, is a middle aged low ranking civil servant wrapt up in a cycle of fixed social interactions and immersed in a possessive relationship with his meekly good natured half sister Crystal. He is morose, cynical and victimised. As a consequence of an event that put an abrupt end to a promising academic career his life has been tormented by twenty years of self imposed guilt and self-loathing. However his history comes back to taunt him, resurrecting the ghosts of the past and hurling him (for the second time in his life) into a vortex of uncontrollable passion. The subsequent sequence of events is mesmerising, all the key characters coalescing into a mass of misunderstandings, misdirected benevolence and deception. And all this glorious action is set against vivid descriptions of the London Underground, work and social hierarchies, Peter Pan and the English winter. You don't just read this novel you smell and taste it.
on 23 August 2009
I first read some of Iris Murdoch's books as set texts when I was at university. She was ,and I suppose still is, much admired by our lecturers.I must admit I wasn't very fond of the books we had to read (like the first set one 'the bell')but however I still wanted to read more and quite by chance, in a bookshop more than 20 years ago, I picked 'a word child'.This is the one I have always loved and admired above all others and probably for all the wrong reasons, namely that the story is very interesting, with a little of a thriller element in it, the characters touching, complex and funny, the plot easy to follow.... Well all in all it wasn't exactly a typical , intellectual, high-brow Murdoch but a very accessible one.
Hilary, highly intelligent,flawed and a complete control freak, wastes his talent as a mediocre civil servant. His work colleagues make fun of him (I really enjoyed the exchanges he has with them)and his few friends have access to him on set days of the week. He has a sister whom he cherishes but whose life is made rather miserable by the fact that it has to be led according to his rules and a subordinate he despises who is in love with her and too much in awe of Hilary to ever hope to deserve her one day.Hilary 's highly ordered life is put in jeopardy one day when he learns a former acquaintance and a man he has wronged ,Gunther, is to become his boss. Hilary would rather flee than have to face him but Gunther's second wife lady Kitty has other plans. She would prefer that the two of them should be able to get reconciled and to get on with their lives... But her interfering will have tragic consequences for all of them.
on 4 October 2010
The story is excellent, as one would expect from so august a writer, but the production of the ebook is a different matter. This Kindle edition is poorly formatted and full of misprints as well as misplaced apostrophes and full stops. These things would not be tolerated in a printed book; they are no more acceptable in an electronic edition for which good money has been paid. Purchasers have a right to expect at the very least a properly formatted and competently edited product.
The 'word child' of the title is Hilary Burde, our narrator. Following an unhappy childhood Hilary's future prospects looked bleak, until he discovered a passion for words and languages and embarked on a promising academic career at Oxford. However, when we first meet Hilary at the beginning of the novel, he is working as a low grade civil servant in London. We don't know at first why he left Oxford, but we are given hints that he had been involved in some kind of scandal there - and when Gunnar Jopling, a figure from his past, comes to work in Hilary's office building, everything starts to become clear.
The book has an interesting structure, with each chapter headed by a day of the week. Hilary has tried to establish order and routine in his life by having certain things that he always does on certain days of the week (dinner with friends on Thursday, visiting his sister on Saturdays, for example) and the novel follows him as this monotonous cycle of events is gradually thrown into disarray. Murdoch's writing never becomes over descriptive or flowery, yet she manages to convey vivid images of the stations on the London Underground, the yellow fog that hangs over the Thames, the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. She also gives an amusingly accurate portrayal of daily office life, where Hilary is relentlessly teased by two of his colleagues, and there are other moments of humour involving Hilary's lodger, Christopher.
Hilary himself is not an easy character to like. He controls every aspect of his sister Crystal's life and the way he behaves towards his poor girlfriend, Thomasina, is even worse. And yet I could still empathise with him at times because his dysfunctional relationships and desperate attempts to stay in control are signs of the unhappiness and inner turmoil from which he's suffering. I really wanted Hilary and the other main characters to have a happy ending and although I'm obviously not going to tell you whether they did or not, I did think the ending was stunning: dramatic, surprising and very satisfying.
I enjoyed this book very much and loved Murdoch's insights into topics such as redemption, forgiveness and moving on after a tragedy. It was such a surprise because I wasn't expecting something so accessible and readable. I'd recommend A Word Child to anyone who may be wondering where to begin with Iris Murdoch.
on 30 October 2014
Just a word of warning about this edition- do not read the introduction first! I did this some years ago and it ruined the book for me as it contains about 20 major plot spoilers including some that occur very late into the storyline! Have just re-read it now having mostly forgotten the story and enjoyed it properly.
on 13 February 2011
Reason for purchasing:
Since being nudged toward Iris Murdoch last year, I downloaded a Kindle sample of all her novels, and a word child was the next one I was enraptured by, although, not by the uninspiring cover.
London, England sometime in the mid nineteen seventies.
For Hilary Burde there is never a dull moment, even though he compartmentalises everything he does at home, at work, in his unsocial social life. Routine numbs the pain; makes him stop thinking. Unfortunately it does not for he is a word child, an Oxford don, whose intelligence, whose manners, whose bearing, whose situation in society is hundreds of miles away from his humble northern beginnings even though he lives in squalor in a two bedroom flat.
Hilary Burde is another one of Iris Murdoch's masterclasses, not in her esteemed subject of psychology but in character creation. How she makes us empathise with Hilary - a most disagreeable middle-aged man who ekes out a living in the dungeons of the Civil Service - is testament to her literary skills. If only Hilary could use his affinity with words in the same manner his creator does, he would not be such an abject failure suffering some form of hereditary self-loathing that psychologists today would love to get to the bottom of. Page by page (in an excellently paced plot controlled by daily chapters), we get to the root cause of Hilary's problems, which are so tightly interwoven with the threads of his life that if one tugs too hard... well, the tapestry of his life does come tumbling down when he is reintroduced to a former Oxford don Gunnar Jopling. Despite all the advice Hilary receives from: his simple yet spiritually superior sister, Crystal; his truthful and inferior work colleague, Arthur; his older and wiser and argumentative homosexual friend Clifford Larr; his doped out pop singer and lodger, Christopher; the ethereal messenger, Biscuit; his well to do yet unhappily married couple Freddie and Laura Impiatt; his lovesick Scottish girlfriend Thomasina Uhlmeister; the comedy duo of Reggie and Mrs Witcher, nothing can help Hilary from being destined to make the same mistakes again. Even though for the last twenty years he has contemplated to death his past, he lacks that vital spark of humanity: moral fibre to do the right thing.
It is difficult to say more without spoiling a thoroughly enjoyable read; however, I would advise not reading the Introduction by Ray Monk until after finishing the novel as it does ruin the plot by dissecting it and unveiling all the smoke and mirrors Iris Murdoch manipulated with the consummate skill of a modern day illusionist/magician.
Rapier speech with a tendency to sarcasm where Hilary is concerned, yet the interleaving monologues are vociferous and eloquent and thought-provoking.
`Thrillinger and thrillinger!' to coin one of Hilary's flippant remarks.
Blots on the landscape:
I was surprised considering Iris Murdoch's bias toward perfection that there were so many odd words/odd punctuation in this book. Without looking for them, I have totalled seventy-five mistakes in my Clippings file. Hmm, upon reflection, I cannot believe these blemishes were in the original paperback; they look as though they have arisen from scanning the book, mistakes OCR font recognition software would induce when there were blots or grain peculiarities in the paper. Yes, that must be the reason. Unfortunately, it still begs the question: why were these Auntie's Bloomers not spotted when the kindle version of the book was produced? When customers have paid as much for an e-book as a paperback, they expect the same standards that are applied to the paperback production process!
on 27 May 2013
As with many novels, enjoyed the first eighty per cent but found the ending too tidy. Sign of a novel I love is one with an ending that isn't tired.
on 9 February 2014
Once again Iris Murdoch presents a most unlikeable character in Hilary Burde and pulls off a most improbable plot; as Oscar Wilde might have put it - 'to cause the death of another man's first wife....but to cause the death of his second....' Her descriptions of London are very evocative but I am left intrigued - what was the "inner circle" line?
on 11 August 2013
One of finest, wittiest, most subtle novels, in which even the characters' names - the hero is called Hilary - play an amusing role