Hilary, a deprived and difficult boy, is saved by a school master who nurtures his love of language. He ends up at Oxford, but most of the novel is set almost 20 years later when he is still suffering the results of a disastrous incident that ended his Oxford days. More plot than a typical Murdoch novel, but not entirely believable and too rushed at the end.
It’s hard to fathom the motivation of many of the characters and why they put up with particular people and situations – but perhaps that’s what intrigued me and compelled me to continue. Some of the minor characters were the most vivid and realistic (Clifford, office colleagues etc).
It’s tricky to make a novel work with an unsympathetic main character - indeed, very few sympathetic characters, but overall this one does. In Hilary’s case, whether Murdoch knew it or not (I don’t think the condition was widely diagnosed in 1975, when it was written), his behaviour seems like classic Asperger’s syndrome. It would certainly explain his lack of empathy, obsessive routines and fascination with the mechanics of grammar (rather than using language for expression and inference). It might be interesting to compare it with the very different Curious Incident by Mark Haddon and his Asperger protagonist (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23326297) and maybe The Housekeeper and the Professor (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/339229819).