A WORD CHILD by Iris Murdoch

A WORD CHILD

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KIRKUS REVIEW

There is an inescapable air of casuistry about Murdoch's plots: it's not hard to imagine her as a 17th-century Jesuit or Jansenist, settling suppositious moral hashes with the most enviable certainty. Here, in one of her rare first person narratives, she gives us Hilary Burde, a fortyish civil servant whose rages and obsessions stem partly from the hideously deprived Calvinist childhood he escaped through a talent for languages, partly from 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 grotesque self-thwarting. 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 casus conscientiae 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 familiar Murdochian materials are all here, but the sum total is less than a resounding triumph. One can see themes and motifs being applied to events like traction to an elbow; the first person narrative often seems like a have-your-cake-and-eat-it compromise between limited fictional point of view and free rein for desired stylistic effects. (On the other hand, Hilary's compulsion for scheduling gives the book a neat, obvious, and effective structure.) Murdoch cannot be less than maddeningly challenging, but one puts this down feeling that only some of the goods have been delivered.

Pub Date: Aug. 18th, 1975
ISBN: 1453201114
Publisher: Viking