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Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle (book review and recommendation)


 Years ago I saw a film about Iris Murdoch's life. It was actually a very decent 2001 biographical drama film, starring Kate Winslet as young Iris and Judi Dench. The focus of the film was on Iris' marriage and relationship to John Bayley. This novel is dedicated to John Bayley, but that is about where the similarity ends. Theirs was a long and interesting marriage, so it is hard to avoid drawing parallels with her work especially since so many of her novels focus on married life. I will attempt it nevertheless. I'm curious about their marriage, but fiction is fiction and Iris is good at that. No need to turn her writing into a metaphor for her married life. She might have drew from her experiences a bit, but all writers to that.

I didn't really think about this movie while I was reading this novel. If anything, I thought of The Sacred And The Profane Love Machine. I kept drawing parallels in my mind between the two. For example, the wife in both of these novels is tall and good looking while the mistress is petite and not too attractive- at least not at the first glance. However, the similarities don't really go beyond the surface. It is true that Iris uses some themes often (married couples, intuitive children) but every novel of hers still feels unique. It is the way she breathes life into his characters, I'm sure. The movie actually made me think of another one- the one about Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps that is where the idea came from? A marriage re-examined, a strong intellectual British woman that starts to lose her intellect. This novel is focused on a couple that is middle aged, so perhaps that is why it didn't bring this film in mind.  

I won't deny that it was this film (watched years ago) that made me so curious about Iris. I promised myself that if I ever come across any of her works, that I will read it. I'm glad I did. This novel is not my first novel of hers, so I knew what I was getting myself into. I was really looking forward to reading it and I wasn't disappointed. One thing is for sure, this lady knows how to write. I published a review on goodreads earlier today (here) and I got some interesting comments. One of them was about how Iris often creates this surreal feeling. She doesn't do this by employing elements of magic realism, but rather by contrasting the characters inner states. Often in her novels, the character undergo violent changes of mood and turbulent spiritual crises. She doesn't need to introduce 'magic', she reveals how wonderful the 'oddness' of every person can be. This is what I wrote in reply to one comment: "It is the characters and their actions that create this 'out of the world' feeling. In other words, I think the writer creates this feeling of surreal by creating a powerful contrast between the protagonist's inner and social life. This makes it seem like they both (the individual and the social) coexist but just barely, so on some level it is almost like having a separate surreal world without having to introduce magical elements.  In this novel there is a mysterious gypsy character and a daughter that believes she is a witch, but there is no real magic, everything has a logical explanation, everything still feels like realism. What makes is surreal is that violent clash that at some point in the novel occurs within the characters themselves. "


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One thing I'm sure of and that is - Iris Murdoch is an exceptional novelist. I’m using a present tense despite the fact that she isn’t among the living, because I believe that in a way writers always live on- at least in their works. So, to me she still is a remarkable writer, even if she is not physically writing any more. What is more, I yet have a lot of her novels to read, so I don't perceive her as the one that stopped writing. I'm sure that I will enjoy her other works as well, as her writing style really seems to suite my taste. 


Having finished this novel, I kept thinking about the reasons that makes Iris so adapt and well suited for writing novels. One of these is surely her intellect. That her intellect was quite remarkable, to that we can all agree. I’m not familiar with her philosophical work, but honestly I feel that I don’t need to be. I don’t need to know everything about her career as an academic in order to be able to fully appreciate her as a writer. Moreover, perhaps it is better not to dwell on it too much. That Iris had serious brain power is very apparent in her writing. No need to go any further than that. In fact, I think what makes her a great writer is that she is able to put all that aside. 

When she writes, Iris becomes, first and foremost a writer. That is to say, she is a true artist, one that is naturally and wonderfully lost in the world of her creation. Intellect is just one of her tools she employs as a writer.

So, what else makes her writing so remarkable? I suppose that many great novels can be said to have one important talent- that of making their characters come to life. Iris was certainly very good at that. She was such a careful observant of human beings, both as individuals and part of society. Iris understood just how complex a human being is, what an acute mess of profound and shallow all of us are. Sometimes what governs us is purely accidental. Sometimes we’re overcome by sometimes as banal as a passing emotion. We all change our mind more often than we would like to admit.  Great decisions in life are at times made for banal reasons. Iris manages to capture that and somehow you can feel that she is capable both of restraining from judgement and making a slight fun of her characters.










This novel like many of her works, focuses on theme of adultery and marriage. The novel opens up with mr. Mor having a conversation with his wife. Mor is a deeply unhappy middle aged man. He is (as one American sitcom had put it) married with children. What is interesting is that he doesn’t even realize that he is unhappy. He is married to a woman that terrifies him, but somehow he doesn’t question that. After all, aren’t men expected to do the right thing, to take care of their families? Fulfil their duties and obligations? Much has been said about the entrapment of women in a domestic life, but aren’t often men just as unhappy with their life? If you cut them, do they not bleed?
If you think that Nan, Mor’s wife is the bad guy here, you’re mistaken. Nothing so obvious and simple could take place in Murdoch’s novel. The tragedy is that Nan is deeply unhappy as well- on some level. That’s the thing. Aren’t all capable of being profoundly sad and remaining blissfully unaware of that? At some level we’re content to be content with less- that’s perhaps one of gravest tragedies of life.




Nan is a passive- aggressive manipulator, but that doesn’t mean she’s not depicted as human. How wonderfully human she is! A professional wife, one that doesn’t try to find any interest of her own, one that finds her comfort in feeling superior to other fussy people because she has no need to fuss. Nan imagines herself strong, but she is deluded. Haven’t we all sometimes? Nan doesn’t deeply care for her children, her feelings for them are all instinct, she will take care of their needs, do their laundry when they came back from school but that is where her care ends. It is obvious she doesn’t dwell on the content of their souls. Nan purposely builds her life around her husband because that is what gives her control over him and in that way makes her feel in control of her own life. How horribly depressive, but you can’t help feeling for her, especially as the novel progresses and she develops further as a character. At one point I was really cheering for her. Don't be so unhappy, I wanted to shout to her. You are the one who holds the key to your happiness! Unfortunately, one can't really communicate with fictional characters. However, one can learn from them. I do feel that I have learned from Nan. Iris is not the kind of writer who will for sake of feminism turn men into villains and women into heroes. I think she is trying to say that in the end we are- both men and women- our own worst enemy! Often what bounds us together is not love but weakness. 



 “He felt as if he were under an intolerable physical strain, as if his body were likely at any moment to fly to pieces. Other strange physical symptoms came to trouble him. An unpleasant odour lingered in his nostrils, as if he could literally smell the sulphur of the pit; and he had from time to time the curious illusion that his flesh was turning black. He had to look continually at his hands to be sure that it was not so. Nightmares troubled him, waking and sleeping - and one bad dream conjured up another, running from box to box to release its fellows. The world around him seemed to have become equally mad and hateful. The newspapers were full of stories of grotesque violence and unnatural crimes. He knew neither how to go on nor what to do to bring these horrors to an end.” 




So, Mor falls in love with a young women. This love transforms his life. He is in love with an exceptional young women. You would think her a femme fatale, but she is anything but. No, a femme fatale is not here- that would be too simple. Rain (that is her name) is an artist. I would hasten to add that it was a smart move to make her an artist. Not only did it gave the writer to explore the theme of art, but it added depth to the character of Rain. In reality, she is the one I felt for the most. Perhaps because she is so young. Age is not irrelevant as Iris knows very well. Rain is a little bit insecure, but also wonderful because she questions things. It is easy to see why Mor falls for her. Why does she fall for Mor? At one point, she herself suggests that it is because she lost her father recently but that might not be so. Sometimes, as Iris knows, there needn't be a reason for attraction. Sometimes we're not even attracted to a person, but to something they remind us of, some part of us we're not aware of...in the end, who can tell for sure? Love makes a fool out of us all. 



Iris is a master of character development...so you might ask- and what about other characters? There are quite a few of them and they are all wonderful. Iris creates her characters with such attention to detail. It always astonishes me just how real they seem. For example, the old headmaster of the school in which Mor is employed. He is the one that receives Rain, the painter in his home. He is a close friend of Mor’s, but he detest his wife. In fact, that is what the opening conversation between Mor and Nan is about, he is telling her about how school decided to commission a portrait of the old master. She is appealed by the idea and considers it a waste of money- we can see a bit of clever foreshadowing here, can’t we? This old headmaster seems very benevolent. He develops sincere feelings for Rain, he wants to pay for Felicity's education (Mor's daughter) and he seems to be almost an angelic character. At the same time, we're told that he was quite a tyrant in his days. Nothing is ever simple with Iris. Every character of hers has so many layers.



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The other teachers from the school are quite interesting characters too but I won't go into them in detail. They do feel real enough. However,  when it comes to other characters, I feel that I must especially mention mainly Mor’s children. His son Donald is in his school while his daughter Felicity is away but she visits often.  His relationship with them was very interesting. Despite him falling in love with other woman and being so lost in his feelings, you got this feeling that Mor is the one that deeply cares about them, not his wife- yet he is so awkward around them. The painfulness that Mor felt for not being able to connect to his children was much evident. A part of it surely comes from his own frustration with his life. Mor’s children seem to be very intuitive, but that is actually a common trait in Iris’s writing. To me that intuitiveness and sensitivity of teenagers (and kids in her novels) always has a ring of truth in it. For aren’t the young ones often the most sensitive ones?




I will just say a few more words about the story itself. I didn’t  want to reveal the plot in this review because I want you to enjoy the novel spoiler free, so I will just say that I enjoyed the plot. I was very anxious to see what will happen. The plot is fairly simple, but it still keeps one on his toes. Most of what happens occurs within the inner world of the protagonists, but that doesn't make it any less interesting. I could see some things coming, but I think it is partly because I have familiarized myself with this writer- at least to an extent. The events weren't predicable. She has a way of making things seem both sensible and strange. You just can't be sure what might happen next, even if you can guess it.  Everything that happened felt very logical and well thought trough. I liked both the story itself and the way it was written. In my view, the execution and the ending were both flawless. Murdoch just has a way of everything falling into place. It is more than attention to detail. It is more than intellect, it goes beyond being smart. It is more than being a good interpreter of human psychology or knowing just how people’s brain work. It is writing, it is as much about letting go as it is about staying focused. It is talent. It is a definitive writing talent, one you can feel in your bones. It is not so much about interpretation of human psychology as it is a view into our souls. That is truly rare. 

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