This was my first Iris Murdoch book. She is one of those authors who has a long list, leading to confusion on where to start, but this book was mentioned by Susan Hill in Howard’s End is on the Landing. Some people are reluctant to read books that take place on boats, or while people are walking, and I am personally reluctant to read books that take place in communes. I can’t really explain it, other than I may have had enough of the commune-type of life-style when I lived in a co-op in college. But anyways, the reluctance was unnecessary, this is a fantastic quiet sort of book, that I think may gain from a rereading or two. I tried googling and reading blog posts to see what others have thought about this book, but I could never find anything mentioning what I specifically wanted to discuss. So, I’m going to add a break in the page after describing the plot in order to discuss possible spoilers.
The story takes place at Imber, a commune situated just outside of a convent, whose members are completely isolated from from the outside world. Imber is meant to be a halfway world between the commune and the rest of the world. At the start of the book several people are making their way to Imber for a short stay. Dora, a wife returning to her husband after attempting to leave him, and Toby, a young student, who is about to start his time at the university. Dora’s husband, Paul, is an overbearing, jealous (and rebarbative as Toby keeps pointing out) man who can’t seem to understand his wife. The Imber commune is lead by Michael, a quiet man who wants to be a priest.
As Dora and Toby arrive at Imber, they are preparing for a ceremony in which a bell will be introduced to the convent, to replace a bell that disappeared centuries ago. There are plans for a bishop to visit and bless the new bell. Meanwhile, Toby finds the old bell at the bottom of a lake, and formulates a plan with Dora to replace the new bell with the old one…
Arggg! There be spoilers after this point!!!
One question that I had after reading this book is whether or not it had unreliable narrators. I suspect that Michael was in fact an unreliable narrator since after he kissed Toby, and after their subsequent encounters, each character reported each meeting slightly differently. Michael often mentioned how history seemed to be repeating itself, and that everything that happened with Toby seemed quite similar to everything that happened with Nick fifteen years earlier. However, if Michael’s reports of what happened with Toby seem unreliable, I think this calls into question the reliability of his reported history with Nick. Then additionally his interpretations of Catherine’s actions at the end of the novel.
The development of Dora was one of the most satisfying parts of the novel. She started out knowing that she could never be the wife that her husband wanted her to be, and yet returned to him despite his jealous and generally awful behavior towards her. Towards the end, when only Michael and Dora are left at Imber, two of the most broken people in the whole community, she is able to grow in their seclusion and leave her husband for good (or at least, that’s how I interpreted it). I’m not certain if Michael grew from their time together, but it is obvious that Dora greatly benefited from it. In the beginning of the book she mentions loving boats but not being able to swim, and towards the end she teaches herself how to swim, possibly symbolizing that she has gained the ability to take care of herself.
Anyways, fantastic book! It will be interesting to reread it sometime in the future and see how my opinions change. I am currently reading book three of the Zamonia series, City of Dreaming Books. I’ll probably switch to Christmas reads at some point. I have Stella Gibbons’ Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on my table to be read soon.
Now for something totally different! I thought I’d start to report in my workouts. So yesterday featured the Insanity Pure Cardio workout followed by a small ab workout. This all clocked in at a very respectable 492 calories. Notice the Christmas tree in the background? Yay holidays!