Tuesday, 21 October 2003
Iris Murdoch: Henry and Cato (1976)
Review number: 1189
Morality, religion and sexuality were constant preoccupations of Iris Murdoch as a novelist, and they are the central themes of Henry and Cato. As the title suggest, it is a novel with two central characters, who both have to come to terms with major upheavals in their lives. Henry Marshalson is the younger son of an English gentleman, working as a minor academic at a small American university, when his elder brother dies in a car crash and he inherits the estate so has to return his ancestral home. Cato Forbes is from the same village in northern England, and he converted to Catholicism at university and became a priest. Now, living in a failing mission in West London about to be demolished, his faith is turning to doubt. At the same time, he is falling for a good looking but amoral youth (known as Beautiful Joe) who haunts the mission.
Apart from their friendship, what Henry and Cato have in common is the desire to get away from their families (with the exception of Cato's sister Colette). Both have or had domineering and bullying fathers, an evil which is exacerbated in Henry's case by the feeling that he could never match up in any way to his brother Sandy. This feeling is shared (and fostered) by his mother, even after Sandy's death. Cato's Catholicism is something of an attempt to break from his father's influence, and particularly from his father's ideas about what his career should have been, though there is no doubt that the feelings he once had for Jesus Christ also seemed perfectly genuine.
Henry and Cato is a novel which poses questions about how people work rather than giving us Murdoch's answers to them (unless her answers boil down to "people are too complex to assign simple motivations to", which seems reasonable). Most of the major - and many quite minor - characters are well drawn individuals; the only exceptions are Colette and her and Cato's father. Their sketchiness is rather strange, considering the amount of effort the author has put into what is quite a large number of others.
Parts of the plot are distinctly melodramatic, presumably to intensify the dilemmas suffered by the characters. There are parts which are hard to believe, which left me feeling that this is one of Murdoch's least satisfying novels, even if it is an interesting read for the character development and description.