The Bell (1958)

'In this holy community she would play the witch.'

This is the book that most would recommend as an introduction to Iris Murdoch, and for good reason – The Bell is, like the best of her novels, about love, freedom and human weakness. Imber Court is a quiet haven for lost souls but beneath the gentle daily routines of this community run currents of suppressed desire, religious yearning and a legend of disastrous love.

Charming, indolent Dora arrives in their midst, and half-unwittingly conjures these submerged things to the surface. Funny, lively and poignant, with a touch of magic, The Bell is Murdoch at her greatest. 

Under the Net (1954)

'"This is real life, Jake,' she said. 'You'd better wake up."'

Murdoch’s debut novel, which heralded the arrival of a distinct and startling talent. Perhaps her most relatable anti-hero, Jake is clever, lazy and scraping by in London as a hack translator. He seeks out an old girlfriend, Anna Quentin, and her glamorous actress sister, Sadie. He is reunited with Hugo, a fireworks manufacturer turned movie producer and majestic philosopher.

Then there's Marvellous Mister Mars, the famous hound, who might or might not be Jake's ticket up and out of this mess. A brilliantly comic novel about work and love, wealth and fame.

The Black Prince (1973)

'Every artist is an unhappy lover. An unhappy lovers want to tell their story.'

Bradley Pearson, an unsuccessful novelist, has finally left his office job and hopes to retire to the country, but predatory friends and relations dash his hopes of a peaceful retirement. He is tormented by his melancholic sister, who has decided to come live with him; his ex-wife, who has infuriating hopes of redeeming the past; her delinquent brother, who wants money and emotional confrontations; and Bradley’s friend and rival, Arnold Baffin, a younger, deplorably more successful author of commercial fiction.

Both a great love story and a great detective story, the ever-mounting action includes marital cross-purposes, seduction, abduction, romantic idylls and murder. The Black Prince is a revelatory dark comedy with ingenious storytelling and aching truths. 

A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970)

'I feel there are demons around.'

Cynical intellectual, Julius King masterminds a real-life drama between friends, siblings, lovers and spouses in an effort to illustrate his beliefs in the ease in which people fall in and out of love and the inability of people to communicate openly and honestly due to their own ego. Comfortable, long-married Hilda and Rupert; Morgan, Hilda’s tormented sister; Morgan’s abandoned husband, Tallis; Simon and Axel, deeply in love; all fall prey to his schemes but not all will survive his malevolent attention.  

A Fairly Honourable Defeat is a literary telenovela, full of brilliant characters, drama, passion and insights. 

The Sandcastle (1957)

'It's all dry sand running through the fingers.'

A sparklingly profound novel about the conflict between love and loyalty. When Bill Mor falls in love with Rain Carter he discovers a new way of being and a new joy in the world and his surroundings. To be with Rain he must abandon his prosaic life as a schoolmaster, his domineering wife Nan and his troubled teenaged children.

A complex battle ensues, involving love, guilt, magic, art, and political ambition. Funny, suspenseful and haunting, it’s impossible not to fall under the spell Murdoch weaves. 

The Sea, The Sea (1978)

'I saw a monster rising from the waves.'

The novel that finally won Iris Murdoch the Booker Prize, The Sea, The Sea is the story of Charles Arrowby, who has determined to spend the rest of his days in hermit-like contemplation. He buys a mysteriously damp house on the coast, far from the heady world of the theatre where he made his name, and there he swims in the sea, eats revolting meals and writes his memoirs. Instead of 'learning to be good', Charles proceeds to demonstrate how very bad he can be.

An extraordinary novel, at once a page-turner and philosophic, comic and melodramatic, which explores chance and fate, mortality, man’s sense of supremacy and love as a force with no logic. Weird, sublime and thoroughly enjoyable – a must-read. 


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