Reading challenge book review – “The Italian Girl” by Iris Murdoch

I chose this for my 2023 reading challenge that is not a challenge (I am not setting myself targets, just picking a neglected title off one of my book shelves). This is another book I appear to have bought in 1990, the year that I graduated from university. A fairly short little book that has been hanging around for 33 years! I am ashamed to say that I don’t think I have read anything at all by Iris Murdoch. I am sure she is one of those authors you think you know, or whose work you think you are familiar with until you try and remember which books of theirs you have read. 

Murdoch is considered one of the finest writers of the post-war generation. She was born in Ireland in 1919 to protestant British-Irish parents but moved to London when she was a baby. She attended both Oxford and Cambridge universities and was a philosopher as well as a writer of fiction and poetry. Her first novel, Under the Net, was published in 1953, and her nineteenth, The Sea, the Sea, won the Booker Prize in 1978. She died in 1999, two years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband of more than forty years, John Bayley, cared for her and wrote a book about their life together, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, which was made into a film in 2001 starring Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench. 

I’m afraid I cannot say that I much enjoyed The Italian Girl; reading a little more about Murdoch’s philosophy and about her writing in the style of novelists who explore their characters’ inner worlds and show them on a journey of transformation and redemption, I can ‘appreciate’ the work, much as a student of English literature might, but it was not an especially engaging experience. Perhaps I should have read it back in 1990 when I was fresh out of university! Perhaps I bought it because it was recommended to me by a lecturer, or something.

So what is wrong with The Italian Girl for the 21st century reader? Well, the most difficult thing was the sense of datedness. The writing style is  not actually showing its age too badly, so it is easy to forget that it is of a similar vintage to The Bell Jar, which I reviewed on here a couple of weeks ago. When one considers the events of the novel, it also feels remarkably modern: various extra-marital affairs, homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, and a rather bohemian setting. Perhaps that is why the staid conservatism seen particularly in the central character Edmund jars so much.

There is little in the way of a plot. Middle-aged Edmund returns to his mother Lydia’s home after her death, having been somewhat estranged from his family for some years. There he finds his brother Otto much declined – overweight, drinking heavily and having an affair with the young sister of his apprentice worker. Otto and his wife Isabel, who lived in the house with Lydia, live separate lives. Isabel keeps largely to her room. The Italian girl of the title is the maid, Maggie, the last in a long line of Italian housemaids that Lydia employed to care for her sons when they were little. Initially, Edmund gets them all  mixed up; Maggie barely has a distinct personality of her own. Edmund intends to escape what he sees as the suffocating atmosphere of the house as soon as he possibly can, once his mother’s funeral is over, but he gets sucked into the family’s drama – Flora (Isabel and  Otto’s daughter) announcing her pregnancy to him, and her intention to have an abortion, an idea that appalls him, then catching Otto and Elsa (the apprentice’s sister) in flagrante

It becomes clear that Edmund cannot escape, that he will need to go through some kind of transformation of his own, to leave behind his po-faced denial of his family’s reality, and, finally, to acknowledge that ‘the Italian girl’ is a real person, whose existence and influence cannot be denied.

I only had to make myself a little bit familiar with Murdoch’s philosophy to understand this book in a different way, but had I not done so, I think I might have thought the book somewhat tedious, the characters two-dimensional and the plot unremarkable. I fear I have become desensitised to subtle novels exploring the human condition. It is more akin to Virginia  Woolf than it is to, say, the story-telling of Isabel Allende.

I tend to feel that short books should be read slowly, and I certainly did that with The Italian Girl. I’m glad, because I have been able to absorb it and to reflect on it more than if I had read it in one speed-reading sitting. I have almost enjoyed it more in retrospect than I did whilst reading it.

I would like to read more of Iris Murdoch’s work, including her non-fiction and her poetry, but perhaps with an awareness that it could almost be classed as historical fiction now. I picked up a copy of The Severed Head recently in my wonderful local secondhand bookshop, Abacus Books in Altrincham, so perhaps I’ll give Iris Murdoch another go soon.

The next book in my reading challenge really is historical fiction – All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Certainly no lack of action in this one.

Audiobook review – “The Dog of the North” by Elizabeth McKenzie

My book club chose this book for our March read after examining the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. We love this particular competition and always try and tackle one or two books on the shortlist – we are getting ahead of ourselves this year! I am ashamed to say that I have still not read last year’s winner, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (we chose others from the shortlist), but that will have to wait for another time.

Books from literary competitions are not always considered particularly accessible, but this novel feels like a real ‘reader’s book’, something the Women’s Prize does particularly well. It is  darkly comic, wonderfully written and with a quirky storyline that will lift you without being patronising, and which does not opt for the easy or predictable plot solutions. 

Penny Rush is a thirty-something who has reached a difficult stage in her life. She has just separated from her husband Sherman, who seems to have experienced a premature mid-life crisis and taken up with another woman. Penny quits her job as a dental nurse, vowing to have a fresh start, and has just a few hundred dollars to her name when a series of family crises beset her. Penny is a lonely soul at this stage. Her beloved mother and stepfather disappeared some years earlier while touring in the Australian outback. Their disappearance has never been explained and their deaths remain unconfirmed. Penny’s sister Margaret now lives in Australia with her football player husband and two children. When Penny’s grandparents suddenly need help to deal with their own problems, only Penny is available to help.

Penny’s eccentric grandmother, former medical doctor (though who retains her license to practice), known as Pincer, gets into trouble with the police when human remains are found in her home. Penny teams up with Pincer’s accountant and friend Burt in an effort to help her. They conspire to clean up Pincer’s chaotic, and dangerously dirty home while she is out and it is the staff of the cleaning company Penny engages who find the bones. Burt is himself an eccentric, though it turns out, also a very sick one. He drives a highly customised and very ancient van which he calls ‘the dog of the north’. When Burt is admitted to hospital, he lends Penny ‘the dog’ which she needs to deal with the many issues that are piling up at her door.

Penny’s grandfather, Arlo, Pincer’s ex-husband, lives with his ghastly second wife Doris, but their marriage is bitter and tumultuous. As Arlo is ageing and his need for support is growing, Doris tells Penny in no uncertain terms that she wants her to get him out of the house and into a retirement facility. With Arlo’s agreement she does this. Penny and Arlo share a deep grief about the disappearance of Penny’s parents. Once out of Doris’s clutches, Arlo decides that he wants to make one final effort to discover what happened to his daughter and son-in-law, and he persuades her to accompany him to Australia. Penny becomes very sick on the trip, having contracted a dangerous infection when Pincer, angered by what she saw as Penny and Burt’s interference, stabbed her with a brooch.

The above is just a snapshot of the events of the book but I hope it gives a flavour of the journey that the novel takes you on. There are also many offshoots to the main storyline: when Burt is sick, his brother Dale visits him from Santa Barbara. Dale represents the calm and stable presence in the chaos of the situation in which Penny finds herself. She is drawn to him, despite his not being as colourful as many of the people she is used to and their relationship evolves slowly over the course of the novel. In the background there is also Gaspard, Penny’s biological father whom she was forced to remain in contact with throughout her childhood, but a man she now tries to avoid.

The novel is about a life that is constantly being buffeted between chaos and order. Penny wants order and calm (what her lost parents represent) but she somehow finds herself being pulled back into disorder, precariousness and unpredictability. Will she ever be able to assert herself and find the peace that she craves?

I loved this book. The characters are all brilliantly realised and the events, though extreme, are entirely believable. When you start the novel you enter a world where weird things, bad luck and chance encounters just happen. It is well-written and the pace is good. I listened to this on audio and the reading by Katherine Littrell was excellent.

Highly recommended.

Book review – “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

I honestly don’t know why I have never read The Bell Jar. I read quite a bit of Sylvia Plath’s poetry when I was a teenager having been exposed to some of her work at school. I have also read quite a bit of Ted Hughes’s work over the years too, so I’m slightly puzzled as to why it has never occurred to me to pick up Plath’s only, but still iconic novel. My university-age daughter read it a while ago and gave me a copy for Christmas.

The Bell Jar was published under a pseudonym in January 1963, just a few weeks before Plath took her own life at the age of thirty. She had already separated from Hughes by this time (following an extra-marital affair that he had) and her two children were very young. Plath had had a history of depression, however, and had made several attempts at suicide.

The Bell Jar is considered largely autobiographical. Its central character and narrator is Esther Greenwood whom we first meet in New York City, on an internship at a magazine. Esther is both fragile and an intellectual and although she is studying under a scholarship awarded in the name of a woman poet, she receives several academic and professional disappointments.

Set in the 1950s, it is clear that little is expected in the way of career success for Esther. Indeed, she is encouraged to consider such ideas as stuff and nonsense and to simply submit to the inevitable – marriage, having children and being a housewife. She is in a relationship with a boy from home, Buddy Willard, a paragon of mediocrity, who is studying to become a doctor. When Buddy falls ill with tuberculosis and spends months in a sanatorium, Esther visits him and begins to realise that a future with Buddy is her idea of hell. Furthermore, when he confesses to her that he has had a sexual liaison, but expects her to be ‘pure’ when they marry, it sets off an internal rage at the different ways men and women are treated. She feels oppressed and imprisoned.

This is a catalyst for Esther’s further deterioration until finally she attempts suicide. Much of the second half of the book is an account of the brutal psychiatric treatment she undergoes, including electroconvulsive therapy (which Plath herself endured) and being detained in a mental health facility.

The Bell Jar is a painfully intimate book. Plath draws you into her character’s state of mind and all the other characters are seen entirely through her eyes. The writing is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Reading her prose descriptions it is clear that she is first and foremost a poet (although she is said to have been working on a second novel at the time of her death).

Cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one by one…..The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.

Esther Greenwood’s account of her overdose in Chapter 13

Plath herself described writing The Bell Jar as taking a collection of episodes from her life and throwing them down on paper. Plath’s mother sought to ban publication of book and it was not available in America until 1971. Plath remains a feminist icon because of her loathing of the status afforded to women of her generation and the opportunities denied women like her. It is also widely believed that Plath was forced to set her own creative ambitions aside in favour of her husband’s.

Despite their being separated at the time of her death, Hughes arranged for Plath to be buried in the churchyard of Thomas a Beckett church in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, an area of personal significance to Hughes.

%d bloggers like this: