This catalogues a disintegrating 60s marriage: Martin is happy with his wife Antonia and mistress Georgie. Antonia then leaves Martin to be with their friend and her psychoanalyst, Palmer, who has a sinister half-sister, Honor. It’s all creepily amicable, rational and analytical. Martin’s siblings, Alexander (a sculptor) and Rosemary, also feature.
There are no sympathetic characters, but their thoughts and motives are mostly so well described (albeit not necessarily credible) that it hardly matters, and in fact it creates a better dynamic of the reader's sympathy. They are all utterly selfish, self-absorbed, hypocritical and fickle: their emotions flick from one extreme to another on a whim and remorse is a barely known concept. Martin is (just) the main character: potent in the literal sense, but emasculated in all other senses.
Antonia’s beliefs “create a rich centripetal eddy of emotion around her” and her Christmas decorations “combined a traditional gaiety with restrained felicity”. In contrast, repeated observations of the weather (mostly rain and fog) are rather clichéd. Also, some of the references to Honor’s Jewishness read uncomfortably nowadays, although they would probably have raised few eyebrows when the book was published.
Freudian and Oedipal analogies abound and it questions which betrayal is the worst: spouse, sibling, friend or lover? More than once it dismisses happiness as not being something attainable/to aim for, and love seems to depend on secrecy and be aroused by jealousy. In this perverse universe, betrayal leads to freedom!
Murdoch’s novels often feature a Svengali-type figure, manipulating other characters, but in this book, there is more than one such character, which twists the threads of the story even more – an appropriate analogy when all of the characters are linked to several others by multiple threads.