Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1133
All of the Murdoch novels I have read have melodramatic elements to their plots - and, indeed, much of their effectiveness comes from the conjunction of her placid, poetic prose style with the events described - but The Italian Girl is the most fantastical of them all.
The narrator, Edmund - and it's a common trick for Murdoch, though rare in other writers, to have a narrator of the opposite sex - returns to the home where he grew up, following the death of his mother. The family, dominated by the suffocatingly unmaternal Lydia, was what would today be described as dysfunctional, and Edmund has not returned since he was initially able to escape. In doing so, he abandoned his brother Otto and Otto's wife and daughter to their fates, along with the last of the series of Italian girls who had acted as the brothers' nannies. The melodrama basically comes from the relationships between Otto's family and his apprentice, an amoral young man who lives with his sister in the grounds of the house.
A large part of the description of the relationships in the novel seems to act as a symbol for something else. This symbolic aspect of the novel is not attached to some external object as it is in The Bell or The Sea, The Sea, which makes it more difficult to guess at what is signified. The house is some kind of prison, the apprentice and his sister some kind of infection, or possibly a dangerous freedom, and the point of the whole is something to do with morality, but more than that I cannot say.
The Italian Girl is not one of Murdoch's greatest novels, but it catches the reader up like a whirlwind once it gets going. Her best books are fascinating; this one is involving but not that thought provoking.