Can you really know other people? Iris Murdoch explores in The Sea, The Sea

Book Reviews, Book Thoughts, Recommended, Writing Thoughts

The Sea, The Sea

Famous actor, playwright and director Charles Arrowby buys a strange old tower by the sea and escapes his busy London theatre life for what he has determined will be a quiet retirement. But an encounter with his lost first love, a constant flurry of old lovers and friends arriving and strange visions around the tower bring the drama of London and more to the seaside.

The Sea, The Sea is another I’ve been wanting to read for a good while – and it was marvellous. It was the best example of first person narrative I have ever read; using the dissonance between Arrowby’s perceptions and what actually happens to challenge his and perhaps all of our understanding of other people.

Arrowby’s views are all we get. He’s writing a diary, which is of course, the text, and to start with his prose seems reasonable and trustworthy. We accept his assessment of situations and people (his ex-mistress who has set up house with his gay friend, for example, we dismiss as ridiculous) as accurate. He seems rational and intelligent, after all.

But as the book goes on we start to question his judgement. Characters act in a way that doesn’t fit with what he has told us but his viewpoint fails to change. He is stubborn in his belief of his cherished perceptions, and does not seem able to accept a version different to the one he has invented. His friends around him have all been actors in his plays at some time; and it seems he is attempting to force them into a story he has created once again.

As his perspective continues to be the only one documented, however, though the reader knows he is wrong we are never quite sure what is right. We begin to doubt him more and more; were the intriguing supernatural visions also a product of his determined mind? And is it possible for any of us to see things as they really are, or do we all project a story onto our surroundings?

A great read, highly recommended, and I will certainly be hunting down some more by Iris Murdoch.


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