A Word Child
by Iris Murdoch
“I have always attributed a great importance to eyes. How mysteriously expressive those damp orbs can be; the eyeball does not change and yet it is the window of the soul. And colour in eyes is, in its nature and inherence, quite unlike colour in any other substance. Mr Osmand had grey eyes, but his eyes were hard and speckled like Aberdeen granite, while Tommy’s were clear and empty like light smoke.” ― Iris Murdoch, A Word Child
This is One of my favorites by Ms. Murdoch, a great place to start if you've never read her fiction, very darkly funny, also about mad love. The ‘word child’ of the title is Hilary Burde, the narrator. Using one of her rare first person narratives, the book has an interesting structure, with each chapter headed by a day of the week. This is based on the order and routine Hilary has attempted to establish for his life by having certain things that he always does on certain days of the week and the novel follows him as this routine is gradually upended.
From childhood he escaped into his own world through a talent for languages, partly due to the inexpiable horror of having caused the death of another man's wife--an event which ended his promising Oxford career and sent him into a decade of self-flagellation. Gunnar, the wronged widower, reappears remarried but as paralyzed as Hilary by the events of twenty years ago. Through the agency of an unfathomable half-Indian servant, Gunnar's second wife begins an equivocal intrigue with Hilary on the pretext of getting Gunnar to come to terms with his feelings about Hilary and Anne's death. The moral imperatives of the developing situation are perceived in contradictory terms by Hilary and his small circle of confederates: a persistent, half-wanted mistress; a placid co-worker and his effusively solicitous wife; a rancorous homosexual friend; the beautiful and mysterious servant; his unpresentable but adored sister and her humbly devoted fiance. Murdoch gives us all the machinery, and then some, for a cause of conscience of the most perverse, contradictory, and surreal complexity--in a subjectively perceived, post-Christian universe where moral impasses obstinately continue to exist and to have consequences, but no canon law can help us predict them.
The result of the events is a resounding triumph. One can see themes develop and abound; the first person narrative keeps you riveted in spite of the limits of this point of view. Essentially it is a Gothic tale whose atmosphere concerns fall and redemption. The author's use of stylistic effects is outstanding. I enjoyed the neat, obvious, and effective structure of the book which kept the events within reasonable limits. Some may find Murdoch somewhat challenging, but but I relish the feeling that the in this case, as with her best novels, goods have been delivered.