This is a tangled web set in the late 60s, concerning Rupert and Hilda; their 20 year old drop-out son Peter; Rupert’s younger brother Simon and his boyfriend Axel; Hilda’s unstable younger sister Morgan and her estranged husband Tallis and her former lover (and college friend of Rupert and Axel), Julius.
Things are intertwined from the start, but later there are strong echoes of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream when the stage is set for a (non magical) enchantment, leading to illusions of love and betrayal with the metaphorical puppeteer appearing to soothe, whilst actually sowing doubts and creating scenarios.
Although the story is entirely naturalistic (rather than magical realism etc), there are occasions when some of the characters think they sense supernatural demons or ghosts, yet none of them realise the real power that is manipulating their lives.
It opens inauspiciously with a long conversation between Rupert and Hilda, which explains the back story, but which they would not be discussing in that way between themselves. However, after that it becomes a trademark Murdoch psychological novel. In some ways her protagonists are a little like the British equivalent of Woody Allen’s shrink-addicted New Yorkers, as they endlessly analyse their relationships, interconnectedness, motives etc.
The narrative slips seamlessly between pages of pure dialogue, to more descriptive passages. In some of the dialogue sections it is not always clear who is saying what, but that is actually very effective, especially when there is a large gathering, with multiple conversations and the reader is effectively eaves-hopping between them.
The book is slightly dated in places (especially early on, when Murdoch seems embarrassed about the terminology regarding Simon and Axel: “liaison”, “association”, “his friend” and there are a couple of awkward racial comments), but mostly it reads very well and would also be good for a reading group, though probably too unfashionable to be picked – unless it rose to prominence on the back of a film. You could spend ages merely on “Both you and X are wounded people. X is the more wounded because X is the more guilty and for that reason is probably the more proud.” And “Good is dull. What novelist ever succeeded in making a good man interesting?”. Fortunately this novel devotes plenty of pages to those who are not good.
I’d love to read another book about Julius, so this one must have been excellent.