The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

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The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Kate Lord Brown
Reviewed by Kate Lord Brown
Summary: The lyrical tale of a theatrical celebrity who trades the bright lights for solitude by the sea. Magical, insightful and laugh out-loud funny, this is Murdoch at her best.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099529798

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What an egoist I must seem in the preceding pages Charles Arrowby reflects towards the end of the book. An ageing celebrity, he is certainly that – vain, self-regarding and obsessive. But he is one of the most engaging literary characters I have ever come across, and this tale of his withdrawal to a remote coastal cottage is a tour de force.

Charles has had an illustrious career on the stage, and an equally disastrous personal life. As the book opens, we find him rather desperately trying to adjust to life at Shruff End, his dilapidated cottage on a remote and rocky coastline. Like Prospero, Charles has retired from society to reflect on his life and write his novel/memoirs/diary (he never quite decides which). Murdoch's descriptions of the damp and cave-like house and the fearful sea that surrounds it are glorious. The sea, and the house, become characters in their own right. This is the nastiest meanest most unpleasant house I've ever entered, one London visitor declares. Where others find the house creepy and the sea frankly dangerous, Charles finds beauty in small things – pebbles and sea flowers, and takes bracing dips daily in the thrashing surf. It is a vivid landscape and Murdoch brings it alive with a painter's eye – when Charles sees a friend swimming, his long pale legs elevated to heaven, he is reminded of Breughel's Icarus.

Through these details, Murdoch draws you into Charles' new life. His gastronomic flights are hilarious: reading and thinking are important, but, my God, food is important too. His mantra simple joys are best, is undermined by the eccentric meals that punctuate his life. Oranges should be eaten in solitude he says, and he went through a period of grated carrot with everything, but recovered. Equal to Charles' obsession with food and drink is his tangled and obsessive love life. In part, this is why he has escaped to the sea. When he unexpectedly bumps into his childhood sweetheart Hartley, love blinds him to the fact that she is now a frumpy middle-aged housewife with whom he has nothing in common, and he sets out to win her heart and destroy her marriage.

Charles has treated his past lovers abominably. It is a credit to Murdoch's ability that in spite of his vanity, jealousy and misogyny (Why keep bitches and bark yourself?) you can't help hoping everything will work out well for him. A girlfriend said to him You care about the theatre more than you care about women. Charles reflects and it was true. The tangled and incestuous relationships between his eccentric friends and girlfriends provide much of the drama and comedy in the book. His single-minded pursuit of Hartley, (she is my end and my beginning, she is alpha and omega), is the catalyst for tragedy. Nothing will stop him from rescuing her, even her apparent reluctance to go with him - as her long-suffering husband says to Charles you won't seem to take a hint.

Poor Charles came to the sea searching for peace and finds anything but. Murdoch weaves tragedy and comedy together with a masterful hand, and as old friends turn on him you wonder if he will ever find what he is searching for. You never did a damn thing for anybody except yourself … a love rival declares … the glitter's fading fast and you'll find yourself alone and you won't even be a monster in anybody's mind any more. Monstrous and marvellous, The Sea, The Sea will have you hooked to the last page as you discover whether Charles will find what he is looking for. Perhaps nothing is perfect - life, unlike art, has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, he reflects. Does he deserve a happy ending? This is a beautiful, complex book and I'd highly recommend you read his tale and decide for yourself.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: The Sea, The Sea was the Booker Prize winner in 1978, and has just been reissued as part of the Vintage Booker Series. We also have reviews of Disgrace by J M Coetzee, The Gathering by Anne Enright, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, The Famished Road by Ben Okri and Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. You might also enjoy Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega.

Booklists.jpg The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch is in the Booker Prize Winners.

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Buy The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch at


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