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Customer Review

12 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Irrationality and Obsession., 17 Mar. 2006
This review is from: The Sea, The Sea (Paperback)
Iris Murdoch wrote her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, The Sea, in 1978 and it is hailed as her best novel. It was her 19th book and she had been short-listed for the Booker Prize several times before. Having watched the film and read the book, which tell the life story of Iris Murdoch in the past few years, I have been interested in reading some of her writing for some time. The Sea, The Sea is the first of her novels that I have had the pleasure to read.
The narrator of The Sea, The Sea is sixty-something year old, Charles Arrowby. Despite his years Charles comes across as a much younger and vibrant character, mostly due to his many everyday oddities. Charles has spent his life in the theatre as a director, and is a famous figure in the media. Charles certainly thinks a lot of himself and his self-focused natures comes across throughout.
Charles has recently retired and has moved from London having bought himself a house by the sea. The house is called Shruff End and it is situated "upon a small promontory" standing alone overlooking an unspecified area of the South English coast. The house is dilapidated, lacking electricity and modern conveniences but it is just what Charles wanted. It is from Shruff End that Charles begins his autobiography and his new life.
Charles soon discovers that one of the people living in the small town is his first love, a women called Hartley (or Mary), who had sworn to marry him in their adolescence. When Charles and Mary turned 18, however, Hartley told him she didn't want to marry him and she ran away. Charles searched fruitlessly for Mary in his youth but she covered her tracks well. He had never forgotten her….
After discovering that Hartley lives in the village Charles rapidly becomes obsessed with her as a symbol of his lost youth and happiness. He is used to being able to have any women he has ever wanted and he convinces himself that she must still love him. Hartley is however, married to Ben, but Charles convinces himself that Ben is a bully and that Hartley is desperately unhappy and awaiting his rescue. Charles simply won't accept that they he and Hartley can't be together, and this leads into an odd psychological drama during which Charles even goes to the length of kidnapping her and keeping her locked away in his house for several days…
Although the majority of the book primarily focuses on the relationship between Hartley and Charles there are a steady stream of visitors to Shruff End and thus a host of other characters. Of greatest interest is Mary and Ben's adopted son, Titus, who sought out Charles to see if he was his biological father and ends up staying indefinitely. Ex-lovers of Charles, Lizzie and Rosina also feature and bring with them many tears and tantrums. Peregrine and Gilbert, friends from the theatre also arrive and finally, James, Charles cousin, towards whom he is jealous and resentful. Shuff end is therefore, at point, a hive of activity and Charles and his guests primarily spend their time drinking into the early hours of the morning.
The books starts as a diary of Charles everyday life. During these chapters a great deal of the book also tells of the menial things Charles does. There are large sections of the book devoted to what he eats (scrambled egg and beetroot anyone or dried apricots soaked in water with biscuits?), his forays around the town and his naked swimming trips.
The diary format, however, is soon lost as the events that occur at Shruff End happen too fast for Charles to keep up his writing daily. By the end of the book the narrative changes to that of a recount of past events. This is a bizarre approach but it works and the gradual transmission between writing styles is barely noticeable to the reader.
The Sea, The Sea is primarily a book about relationships, about Charles inability to let go of his first love and about his obscure relationships with a number of ex lovers and friends. Despite his high self opinion, Charles is an insecure character. But he is likable for his bizarre ways and his completely illogical rationality when it comes to both Hartley and the other characters in the book.
The sea is nearly ever-present, always in the background and also playing a more major role at times. In addition to the numerous swimming trips, there is an attempted murder whereby one character is pushed into the sea, a drowning and the sighting of the sea-monster. The latter is a small and obscure part of the book and the only really unbelievable part. Thus I thought it was a shame to include it as it distracts from the main focus of the book.
The book is fairly slow, not a great deal happens in the 500 odd pages of small text, although it is well written using a lovely poetic style and very small chapters throughout. I found The Sea, The Sea relatively easy to read although it did take me a while to get into the storyline at first. I'd say it took me about 3 weeks to read, because it does demand attention especially while you get used to the style.

I enjoyed reading The Sea, The Sea, and I intend to read some of Iris Murdoch's other works. It isn't the easiest book to read and I did struggle a little to get into it initially. It is worth persisting though as the main character is a splendid and interesting chap who I liked despite his irrationalities. The Sea, the Sea is never going to be hailed as a classic but at the same time Iris Murdoch is a reputable author and as her best known book The Sea, The Sea is worth a read. Four stars from me.
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Location: Newcastle, UK

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