I have a read a few other Murdoch novels before, and have ranged from quite enjoying them to finding the characters intensely irritating, this book has both of these ingredients. I wanted to read this as it had won the Booker prize and was interested to see if it was better than her other novels such as The Bell.
The story recounts that of Charles Arrowby, a retired theatre director who tries to escape London to live by the sea (the sea) where he begins writing his memoirs, however in a frankly bizarre set of coincidences Charles manages to run into virtually all his ex-lovers and acquaintances during the course of the book. As the book develops it becomes clear that Charles has a gigantic ego and often talks of a sea monster which obviously represents his ego/soul. He refuses to believe his ex-lover Harley is not still in love with him nor desperate to leave her husband – despite the fact that she dumped him as a teenager. It becomes more and more clear that Charles is completely deluded in his self-importance and has a horrible habit of breaking up his friends’ marriages just for fun. It is extremely hard for the reader to understand why so many women are throwing themselves at the sixty year old, selfish, Charles.
The book becomes more and more ridiculous as it develops and you are hoping that Charles will eventually drown in the sea, the sea. Even when he uses Hartley’s adoptive son Tobias (who appears coincidently and Charles automatically assumes that he would welcome him as a potential father),as bait to lure her to his house, and then kidnaps her, none of the other characters bother to do anything about it. I laughed out loud when Charles receives Hartley’s letter simply inviting him to tea, which of course he can’t believe it is not a love letter; “what did it mean, what was its deep meaning?”. There are interesting elements here, but it is a bit overlong and frankly a bit bonkers. As Sam Jordison in the Guardian argues, it is Charles’ inability to recognise the egotism and selfishness of his own romantic ideals is at the heart of the novel.
He then goes on to sum up the novel in an interesting way;
“As the title might suggest, this sea plays a major role in the book. It’s always beautifully described – and also, unfortunately, the subject of quite a lot of mystical bollocks. So there it is, a book that has left me thoroughly divided. It’s as flawed as it is wonderful and it took a brave jury to give it the prize. Or, at least, a very forgiving one.”
Listen to Digested Reads for another succinct and funny summary of the novel.