Saturday, 29 June 2002

Iris Murdoch: The Book and the Brotherhood (1987)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1102

The title to this complex novel suggests that it will have a religious theme, like that of The Bell. There is something in this, but it is only indirectly - the narrative reads like it is about religious ideas, but they play only a small part in the story. The book of the title is a political one, which one character, Davide Crimond, has ostensibly been writing for many years. His writing is funded by a group of rich Oxford graduates, described by one of their number as "part of the brotherhood of Western intellectuals". Even though they no longer believe in the ideals that the book was meant to enshrine, the support continues until the year which is described in Murdoch's novel.

What happens in this year, something which shakes up the relationships among the brotherhood and their friends, is that one of them leaves her husband for Crimond. It is the dislocation this causes among the group, their changing relationships, that Murdoch uses to tell us about what each of them is actually like in the first part of The Book and the Brotherhood. In fact, it could be said that all Murdoch's novels are about the way in which relationships evolve, which perhaps accounts for the way that they read as though they have a sea-like ebb and flow to them. Murdoch here also uses the book to create contrast; in between dramatic events come some distinctly intellectual arguments about the politics of the book, defusing tension. It establishes the believability of the characters extremely effectively, and makes it possible for Murdoch to demonstrate the differences between them.

About two thirds of the way through, though, Murdoch springs a surprise. The arguments cease (the book has been completed), and events escalate towards the melodramatic. Because of the way that the first part of the novel has been structured, this section draws in the reader, already committed to the characters, far more easily than would otherwise be the case. It seems far more real because the people who do these things, who have these things done to them, are well established in the mind, as though they are our own friends who have become involved in something out of their depth.

Then, after these hectic pages reach their climax, there is another change in pace. We get to see something of the way in which the dramatic events of the winter lead to changes in the characters themselves and their relationships. Again, the careful structure of the novel (with of course the symbolism of the new life of springtime) serves to heighten its effectiveness.

Perhaps in the end The Book and the Brotherhood is not as gripping nor as thought provoking as Murdoch's very best work (The Bell, say). It is still an excellent novel by anyone's standards, well deserving of its Booker Prize shortlisting.

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