Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Sea, The Sea, THE BLINKING SEA.



This innocent little picture from the back of my diary reveals so little of the anguish and torment which it represents...

When someone suggested The Sea, The Sea for my book group last September, my initial thought was "Oh, good.  I wasn't sure whether or not I liked The Sandcastle, and now I'll be able to have another try with Iris Murdoch."

And then I saw how long it was.

Well, nothing daunted (ok, a little bit daunted), I started to read it.  And it's really beautifully written.  It all starts off with a retired theatre director in his new house by the sea, discussing his hectic past and his embrace of solitude.  And his meals.  Always his meals.

(This, incidentally, will not be a review of the book.  I don't have the stamina.)

My experience - nay, my journey - with The Sea, The Sea was very strange.  I started off thinking I'd cracked Murdoch.  All those unread novels by her, sitting on my shelf, could now be read.

And then...

Well, that beautiful prose got rather cloying after a while.  There is almost no dialogue, because Charles Arrowby lives alone.  Even at the best of times, I prefer well-written dialogue to well-written narrative - one of the reasons I love Ivy Compton-Burnett so much - and I felt rather beleaguered by it all after a while.

And then...

Then it got mad.  By a series of bizarre coincidences, every woman Charles has ever romanced ends up in the same village - including the love of his youth, now a dowdy old woman.  He is still bewitched by her, or the memory of her, and is determined to 'free' her from her cruel husband.  She admits that he has been cruel... and changes her mind a bit about it... so Charles (great sage that he is) decides the best thing to do is kidnap her, hold her against her will in a locked bedroom, and tell her how much she loves him.  He wants to free her, by imprisoning her.

Ok, so Charles is insane.  But nobody else much seems to mind.  The husband busies himself with gardening, various other people have highly-detailed lunches and bathe in the sea.  There's even a half-hearted murder plot thrown in for good measure.

Most bizarre of all, once the woman is finally let out of her locked room (Charles still determined that they love one another), she goes back home and nobody seems to mind either.  She even lets him come to tea.  IT ALL MAKES NO SENSE.

I finished reading it.  I was hoping there would be some big pay-off.  It's a first-person narrative, so I was expecting a big unreliable-narrator twist - did any of it happen?  Is Charles insane?  But, instead, it just petered out.  There was no indication that the events were only in his mind - which is the only way that the novel would make any sort of sense.  I even wondered if The Sea, The Sea held the first clues of Iris Murdoch's dementia, but she wrote quite a few after this, so I suspect not.

Rarely have I been so cross with a book.  Yes, any individual sentence or paragraph was beautifully written - but a series of beautiful sentences do not a novel make.  And nobody at book group could explain it to me either.

So... I'm willing to give respected or recommended authors three attempts.  That's how I came to love books by Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, and E.M. Forster.  Iris Murdoch - you've had two swings and two misses.  Third strike, and you're out.  We'll see, we'll see...

78 comments:

  1. I think your three strikes rule is very fair and practical. Some authors and some books require multiple attempts.

    I have only read Under the Net and I was also not too impressed with it. However, many people love it and find it very funny. Chacun à son gout!

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    1. If she weren't renowned and recommended by some friends, I wouldn't bother trying again - but I feel the possibility that I will grow to love her is too great to ignore!

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  2. I love when you get cross at books, Simon. Anytime capslock gets used I am thoroughly entertained. It is strangely nice to be reminded that not every book is wonderful and enjoyable and that sometimes the effort one puts into reading is in no way rewarded. But this is also a good reminder of why I've never been tempted to join a book group!

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    1. Haha! Well, I'm glad it benefits someone ;) And it also, hopefully, makes those books I *do* love shine all the more brightly in comparison. Some bloggers whom I love only ever seem to read books they adore to the skies, and I do lean that way a bit myself, so it's nice to have a bit of variety.

      But I still love book groups! It was wonderful to vent my feelings at the group meeting ;)

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    2. (but this jeopardise A Century of Books by taking me three weeks to read...)

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  3. I'm sorry that you had to suffer through this, but if it's any consolation, you have saved me from ever even picking this book up!

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  4. Oh dear - I haven't read Iris Murdoch yet but this is the one I'd chosen to start with. I use the three strikes rule too - looks like I have a long game ahead.

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    1. Hopefully you'll be one of those who love her straight away! Let me know what you think of it...

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  5. Oh dear. I am left wondering whether sympathy for your angst should come before admiration for your persistence. Whatever, I am grateful to be warned off this book.

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    1. ha! thanks Margaret :) I shouldn't put you off altogether, though, as I know some people completely love Iris. So maybe you'd be in that camp...

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  6. Oh - this is like my OH's experience of her The Book and the Brotherhood. Poor man, I think he's done more than 3 now, not sure - living with an IM researcher, I think he felt he had to, but he took about 9 years to start!

    I was going to recommend either Under the Net (early, funny, dialogue) or The Bell (because I can steal your thoughts for my research mwah hah hah). But then I love The Green Knight and that's ever so weird. Hm. Oh - A Fairly Honourable Defeat has some sections of dialogue, and An Accidental Man opens with a great wodge of it, so either of those might help ... Good luck!

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    1. Sorry to disappoint, Liz, and thanks for clearing up some info on Facebook! I might well have The Bell as my third, if I get back to Iris Murdoch this year, as my Dad gave me a copy once - so it would fit into my Reading Presently project...

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  7. Simon, you write such lovely posts about novels you don't like. And you are obviously very patient, or very persistent! These days any authors I don't like rarely get a second chance, and occasionally I dislike a book so much I don't even finish it.

    I'm with you on Iris Murdoch by the way. I read her many years ago, didn't get along at all, and have never felt the need to revisit.

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    1. Thanks Christine! They are fun posts to write, so long as the author won't be reading them (!) I doubt I'd have finished it if it weren't for book group, or if I hadn't been holding out hope that there'd be a pay-off at the end...

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    2. Christine, I wholeheartedly agree with you on Iris Murdoch. (I gave her only two strikes, however.)

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  8. I too have read The Sea, The Sea. I too became VERY CROSS. I only finished it because it was on my MA. Even after the seminar I couldn't understand what was good about it. Booker Prize? Inexplicable.

    (In this case it was 'one strike and you're out' for me. Never read another Murdoch.)

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    1. Oh Erica, that makes me feel very much better!

      I've got to say, when I realised it had won the Booker, I was less surprised by my reaction... I never seem to get on well with their choices.

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  9. You did much better than me - I never got past the 50 page mark with this one, and that at a time when I would hardly ever give up on a book! I really do find Murdoch a very patchy writer, though. I enjoyed The Flight From The Enchanter although the ending was rubbish. And I've heard The Bell and The Unicorn are worth reading. I will try her again some day, just not...today.

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    1. Victoria - you and Erica have comforted me no end! When I try her again, I think it'll be The Bell. And if that doesn't work, my little pile of IM books will be going to the charity shop!

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  10. Rebekah Wilson9 January 2013 09:41

    I love Iris Murdoch but I did recently read Bruno's Dream and was very disappointed to discover it was rubbish. I have The Sea, The Sea on my bookshelves but haven't read it yet (obviously because of the size), and now I'll definitely think twice ...

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    1. I've not even heard of Bruno's Dream! Gosh, it sounds like a novel about Strictly Come Dancing...

      Which ones do you think are worth reading?

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    2. Ooh, they're all good really - A Fairly Honourable Defeat was the last one I read before Bruno's Dream, which was - as I said - a complete dud. Probably would have been better if it *had* been about Strictly Come Dancing!

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  11. Oh dear, I love Iris Murdoch! I started reading her in the 60s, beginning with 'A Severed Head' and 'The Bell', and later, really enjoyed 'The Sea, The Sea', 'A Word Child', and 'Under the Net', to name but a few. She's one of those writers (like P.G. Wodehouse) who's managed to create a version of the world that's uniquely her own, and I find her endlessly witty and playful at her best. I'm not sure how to explain her appeal; it's something you either warm to or you don't, and I think it has a lot in common with Restoration Comedy or maybe a Mozart opera----larger than life, erudite, high status characters engaged in a kind of ironic and often sexually charged dance that's somehow rather heartless. I would agree that she's not everyone's taste!

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    1. That's a really wonderful description of her writing, Sue, and makes me wish that I enjoyed her novels - but, oh, I don't. Did she ever write short stories? I think that I'd enjoy those, because I do think her writing is lovely - and it would be over quickly!

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  12. I became obsessed with Iris Murdoch in my early 20's, starting with "The Bell" and then going on to read "The Sea, The Sea" with many others along the way (although I did find "The Book and the Brotherhood" utterly unreadable...)I remember loving the quirky meals that Charles has, descriptions of simple yet very odd combinations of food. I particularly loved "The Black Prince", a tale of obsessive love that had me completely gripped. However, I fear now that if I returned to them I might share your annoyance and sometimes it is best to youthful pleasures in the rosy past!

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    1. Maybe! There were a couple of people at my book group who had loved Iris in their youths, and couldn't get on with her anymore...

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  13. Sorry Simon the above comment was me, I just pressed the wrong button and I don't like posting anonymously!

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    1. Thanks for popping back and putting a name to Anonymous, Deborah!

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  14. I also found this book mad! I read it a few years ago and was looking forward to it - the size didn't even daunt me because I was in the mood for something long. As you say, it was well written, but all the coincidences were just too much for me (and that half-hearted murder plot that you mentioned!)
    I won't be writing Iris Murdoch off yet though, I might just wait a while before I read another one of her books.

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    1. It's so mad! Too mad for me, I think. Especially since I am almost never in the mood for a long book - with the exception of Dickens.

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  15. Simon, add me to the legions of fans who love it when you get cross. I actually liked this book, and generally like Murdoch as well, although her writing is definitely an acquired taste and not for everyone. I hope you'll try another sometime.

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    1. Heehee! thanks Laura, I'll get cross more often... maybe with my next Iris Murdoch book!

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  16. Hmm, no dialogue, no logic, lots of odd meals and a limp ending? I might start with another of her books... Very impressed you managed to finish it, I think I'd have abandoned it earlier.

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    1. Liz says that there's more dialogue An Accidental Man or A Fairly Honourable Defeat, so maybe one of those would be a better place to start!

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  17. We read 'The Sea, The Sea' in our book club last year, and I have to admit I was the only one who liked it at all! I agree all the coincidences are a bit much and Charles' obsession with his old flame is weird. He's definitely unhinged, as are many of the other characters, but I love the way we only discover this gradually and I found the reasoning he uses to rationalise some very odd decisions quite insightful. I was also very drawn to Murdoch's prose style and particularly enjoyed the detailed descriptions of some very quirky meals, which I definitely won't be trying out on my family any time soon!

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    1. I wish the novel had worked out like you said! But I don't feel that there was a coherence to his madness being unravelled... other people didn't react in the right way for that narrative line to be taken. Something like Stephen Benatar's Wish Her Safe at Home seems much better at that sort of unreliable narrator scenario.

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  18. But... was it at least enjoyable to read? I mean, some books seem to lack internal logic, but are so approachable-looking that one can't help but devour them anyway (maybe it has something to do with the rhythm?) Weird I can handle. Weird and tedious not. I'm hoping this one is a case of the former, 'cause I really want to like Iris Murdoch.

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    1. No! It was nightmarish! It took so long! I enjoyed reading the first 80-100 pages, and after that I found it so tedious.

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  19. I read The Bell by Iris Murdoch and liked it, though I didn't think I got everything out of it that Iris would have liked me to. Since then I have picked up, ok bought, books by her but have just left them unread. I was going to read this next as Marieke Hardy, my book goddess, has read it a few times and loved it more and more. Now I am wobbling, though I wasn't planning on reading it right now so we will see.

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    1. The Bell will likely be the next one I try - a lot of people have told me that I'm more likely to get on well with that. But, when the whim takes you, see what you think of this one!

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  20. What an empassioned non-review! My Iris reading was a couple of decades ago. I think I enjoyed it then, but have been meaning to try her again for ages. I won't start with The Sea, The Sea though. Hmm ... thinks...

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    1. Maybe she's best left in the past, or maybe you'll love her all over again! Only one way to find out...

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  21. Your review makes me want to try it to see if I agree with you. I might read The Bell first, to ease into it and since it's already on my shelf.

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    1. A lot of people seem to prefer The Bell - and I think that'll almost certainly be my third attempt with Iris. But you might end up loving this one - I'm glad even my frustrated review might lead a reader to trying Iris!

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  22. I loved The Sea, The Sea, but I agree that it is nonsensical! It's a weird retelling of The Tempest, and I think that a lot of the strangeness of the Iris Murdoch book is a comment on how bizarre The Tempest is. I do think you are meant to wonder whether everything happens in Charles'/Prospero's mind. I thought this book was funny! Especially the idea of Prospero as a fussy loner who will only eat food that might have appeared in "The Wind in the Willows."

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    1. I feel a fool, as I missed the Tempest parallels completely. I'm not even sure I see them now, but I'll take your word for it (it's a long way from being my favourite Shakespeare play, perhaps for the same reasons that I don't get on with this book.)

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  23. It is totally weird book but that's part of what's so good about it, keeps a reader thinking! I read it several years ago now but I liked it very much and the writing, as you say, so beautiful.

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    1. Well, there you go! I've got to say, it didn't make me think much, because there didn't seem to be any possible conclusion to those thoughts... I love weird writers like Barbara Comyns, where the weirdness is an elevation of the matter-of-fact narrative, and not the replacement for it...

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  24. I've only ever tried Under the Net, and didn't get very far with that (it's possibly I may have tried The Bell once many years ago). I feel like I ought to like Murdoch but have never been able to get terribly enthused. But the oddness of this sounds quite extreme - maybe I'll try UTN again. I do think your "three strikes" rule is sensible - there's certainly no point sticking with an author you don't like after that many tries.

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    1. Three does feel quite generous enough, Kaggsy! I think I have UTN on my shelves in Somerset, so... well, maybe.

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  25. I got on reasonably well with "The Bell". Being partly about religious faith (says he with vast over-simplification) it could be right up your street; though I guess it could equally have the opposite effect. As for "The Sea, The Sea", going on your description, I think I would have abandoned ship after the first few chapters. Apart from anything else, as a non-foodie (obviously I eat the stuff but it is not a topic that interests me) endless descriptions of meals are not to my taste (pun-intended).

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    1. I don't often get on with novels about faith, because they so often seem to be written by people who have no idea what it's like to have faith, but I imagine Iris would get her head around it (I don't know what her personal faith was or wasn't.)

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  26. Positively enjoyed this book. Read it a year ago. Haven't read anything else by her, however.

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    1. I think you are trying to hard with it, trying to be serious when it's not. Just let the water wash over you...loosen up. ;)

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    2. Ha! Gracious. Well, too late now. I guess there's a difference between being serious and wanting coherence.

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  27. This is one of my fav books! It's the first Murdoch I read, & after that I tried The Green Knight. Couldn't finish it, I hated it!

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    1. Oh! Well, if The Green Knight is an updating of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I think I'll stick to the original.. but I'm glad that you love TSTS :)

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  28. I ve this on my shelves and it may stay there for a while now lol maybe the guardian condensed version of this book may have been enough for me lol ,all the best stu

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    1. Haha! I'll have to hunt that out...

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  29. I am extremely peeved right now, and it's sort of your fault, Simon. Well, not directly - please forgive the implication!

    This review sent me searching for the book, because I want to see for myself if it strikes me as as impossibly bizarre as it did you, or if I might instead like it as so many of the commenters above did.

    So here's the "argh" bit. In the ENTIRE library system in the biggest city in our region, there is - get this - only ONE Iris Murdoch book listed. A Severed Head. So, I think to myself, it's better than nothing. But it's not on the shelf where it should be (I was at the main branch, which was where the book was listed as being shelved.) Two librarians helped me look. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

    Iris Murdoch. Not represented in a public library system serving 80,000+ people, in the largest city in British Columbia's north. I am shocked. But I suppose, thinking about it a bit more, not terribly surprised. Must need the room for all the vampire books and bodice rippers, of which there seem to be a generous amount filling the shelves. Gar.

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    1. Gosh, I was nervous at the beginning of your comment - thank goodness you're not cross with me! But that is really absurd, that there is only one Iris novel. That's actually appalling, that such a renowned and prolific author should be so poorly represented. Not Impressed, British Columbia.

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    2. I live in a city of close to 3 million, and the libraries seem to toss out a great many fiction authors about 50 years after their publish dates. It's very frustrating. (Almost makes me fear a conspiracy...!)

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  30. Ha, Simon, still laughing at your post. You know, you are very generous with your three strikes. I think IM is a marmite author, much like Ivy C-B actually.

    As I mentioned on my blog, I've been having a Murdoch binge but have just been reading without bothering to think properly about them. From what I've read I'd say that she's a novelist very much preoccupied with morality, and also with playing literary games, for instance with The Tempest or The Green Knight. More than that I don't really know, but if you dislike authors who tell rather than show, discard realism at the drop of a hat and are very allusive, then maybe she's just not for you. I am too lazy to do the research which would help me understand her better, but I enjoy her style, and her generosity to her characters who are usually rather weak. But life is too short to wrestle with books which other people like. Cast her aside, but if you must compel read another, try 'The Bell'.

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    1. Right, The Bell it will be. And if that doesn't work, she's going on the reject pile (even though, oddly, she follows me on Twitter. Hmm.)

      I think you've hit on the reasons that I don't like this novel - the show-not-tell, the allusiveness. Normally I'm happy to dispense with realism, but I've realised that I have stringent requirements when that happens - I think The Sea, The Sea frustrated me because it all seemed to fit into a structure where there would be a rationale answer - it was almost like a detective novel structurally - and there was no pay-off.

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  31. I have two words for you: Mary Webb. Now are you still mad at Iris Murdoch? I have come across a few Murdochs that I haven't been enthusiastic about, but overall I really like Dame Iris's books. I started with Under the Net and still consider it my favorite.

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    1. Well, the difference is that I only got 1.5 pages into Webb! As stylists, they are worlds apart, and you have made me feel a bit better about Iris ;)

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  32. I read The Bell a few years ago, and thought is was 'okay' even though it did have a kind of 'feeling' about it which I can't explain....Not exactly spooky but, something. To my mind, Iris Murdoch is overrated - give me Barbara Comyns or Dodie Smith any day. Trouble is, I feel as if I OUGHT to like her; is it the Emperors new clothes syndrome do you think? I can't wait for your review of The Bell when you've read it. Regards, Jean.

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    1. The thing is, she was also really pretty popular with the public - it isn't just a highbrows-loved-her situation. So I feel like I'm missing something. But, like you, I'll stick with the underrated Barbara Comyns when I want a dose of creepy!

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  33. Oh, dear, I love your writing, Simon, and I come here almost every day, but we are just complete opposites on The Sea, The Sea. It's one of my favorite books, and when I wrote about it at my old blog, Frisbee, I was humbled by Murdoch's beautiful style. But I can't read much of Murdoch in a year. I thought I would read all her books in 2011, and I believe I made it through three.

    Yes, Charles IS insane. What I found so odd is that it takes so long for his friends to confront him.

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    1. Please forgive me, Kat! I wish I loved Iris, I really do.

      But thank you for being the first person to give me a decisive answer about Charles!

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  34. I went through an Iris phase some years ago & really enjoyed the books I read. But, the ones I really loved, I listened to on audio & I wonder if that made a difference? Under the Net read by Samuel West, The Bell read by Miriam Margolyes & A Severed Head read by Derek Jacobi. I haven't read any for years & I'm not sure I want to, now!

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    1. Audio might make sense... for some reason I kept thinking of Derek Jacobi while I was reading The Sea, The Sea actually. But I wonder if, should I drift away for a moment or two, I'd lose all sense of what was going on?

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  35. I haven’t read The Sea, The Sea so can’t say much about the book, but… great review, Simon (another great review) and “we’ll see, we’ll see” at the end – brilliant!

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    1. I was hoping someone would pick up on that ;)

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  36. It was sort of inevitable that you weren't going to like my favourite Murdoch - ah well.
    Just to add to your horror, it is alleged that the bizarre dinners therein described were actual Murdoch family favourites - eeek!

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    1. Oh, Alison, are we destined always to disagree!

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  37. Haha, you made it further than I did! That's the same one I tried, and I'm afraid it was one strike, she was out; I haven't tried her since then. Oddball meals are ok - I have a weakness for reading descriptions of food - but I didn't even make it far enough to get the plot straight, and it seriously wouldn't have helped if I did, judging by your rundown. Not my cup of tea.
    Anyway, feel free to be cross and write un-reviews any time, that was brilliant.

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