Friday, December 3, 2010

Review of the Day: The Sea, the Sea

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch is a novel about an aging theater icon who retires to the North Sea coast of England. It is a wonderful, fantastic story, about long-lasting attachments between people and the ideas that hold them together.

Murdoch is known as a philosophic writer and there is not a lot of action in this book. But she knows how to pace the story to keep it entertaining. She parses out what action there is, so just when it starts to seem too talky, something startling happens to capture the reader's attention.

Charles Arrowby was a famous playwright, actor, and director who, in retirement, seeks solitude in a funky, spooky old house perched on seaside cliffs. The story is told through his journal, which contains observations on his present as well as self-serving, only sometimes honest, reminiscences on his past.

While Charles seeks to put the theater life behind him, his life is theater. When former lovers, friends old and new, and even his Buddhist cousin turn up at his isolated retreat, Charles can’t help but manipulate and bully them into being a part of his one-man show. He treats the people in his life like he treated the audiences he mused on in this passage:

The theatre is an attack on mankind carried on by magic: to victimize an audience every night, to make them laugh and cry and suffer and miss their trains. Of course actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied.

In the end, things do not work out as Charles planned, which only shows that Murdoch was much wiser than her narrator.

This is a wonderful, engrossing book, well deserving of its Booker prize.

(If you would like your review of this book, or any other Iris Murdoch book, listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


The Sea, the Sea won the Booker prize in 1978. I am reading it for my  Battle of the Prizes, British Version challenge. It will also count as one of my Chunkster Challenge reads.


  1. So glad you enjoyed this book. I enjoyed The Black Prince very much too and can recommend it. I've also read The Italian Girl (not outstanding, but a short enjoyable read) and The Message to the Planet (which was odd but enjoyable). I've gathered several of her books now through swaps and such and should really do something like a Murdoch reading challenge or something. I'm interested to know what you might read next by Murdoch.

  2. Sounds interesting, but I'm not sure it's for me, since I do like some action in my books.

  3. Sandra: I have enjoyed every Murdoch book I've read so far. I think Message to the Planet may be next because I found the audio version at my library.

    Bermuda: Actually, there really is a lot of action in the book -- one death, an attempted murder, vicious attacks, and plenty of running around. So I didn't express that idea very well. There is action, but it is not an exciting book.

  4. This is one of those books that I have wanted to read for a long while. Great review

  5. I probably shouldn't be surprised (I've heard wonderful things about Iris Murdoch), but the idea of a well-paced but not too plot-heavy book sounds so unlikely that I know I'll need to read this eventually. It does sound like a very good story...

  6. I enjoyed reading this, but was glad when it was over. Charles was interesting but only semi-likeable and you are right, Murdoch gets a lot of mileage out of the house and the setting.

  7. I have to admit that I have only read half of this book, although I intend to one day read the whole thing.

    Have you read "The Bell"? I studied it for my A-Level English Literature course and just loved it.

  8. I have been wondering if I would enjoy this book for quite a long time. You review has made me take another look at it. I think I should at least give it a try sometime. I do like a book with more plot however there have been somebooks that I have enjoyed that didn't have a lot of plot.


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