Jessica's Reviews > The Unicorn

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch
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's review
May 01, 2011

really liked it
Read from May 22 to 28, 2004

I ended up in the Iris Murdoch section of the library quite by accident, and her name was so familiar to me but I couldn't think of much of anything about her, so I decided to give one of her books a try. I picked The Unicorn because it was small enough to carry with me back and forth on the train and because the one-sentence synopsis pasted inside the otherwise completely blank cover sounded interesting enough: "A London girl, hired as a companion and tutor, attempts to rescue her mistress who is kept a virtual prisoner by her guardians in a castle on the wild Celtic coast." (You see, the Murdoch books that were not the size of breadboxes were all bound 70s-style in green or orange or gold cloth with no text or embellishment other than the title and author's name on the spine. I didn't recognize any of the titles, so I didn't have much to go on in choosing which book to read.)

The story begins with Marian Taylor's arrival in the wild Celtic coast, where she meets the man who placed an ad requesting a governess. She soon discovers (having already accepted the position) that they wanted not a governess for children but a companion for Mrs. Hannah Crean-Smith, a woman of about her own age. As Marian begins to learn about Mrs. Crean-Smith's castle and its odd inhabitants, she discovers that Mrs. Crean-Smith is both mistress and prisoner of the house, while its other inhabitants - Marian included - are meant to be her jailers, employed by her mythically distant and hateful husband, who lives in New York. At first Marian rages against this imprisonment, making plans to set Hannah free, but she soon discovers that matters are far more complicated: Hannah has accepted and embraced her captivity as a kind of spiritual test, and she will not willingly leave it. Furthermore, in embracing her captivity in this way, Hannah has become something of a spiritual icon or saint to the people around her, and Marian too finds herself captivated by Hannah's intense spirituality, wondering whether Hannah is in fact right to suffer so nobly.

While reading this book, I vascillated between love and frustration about the story and writing. The characters are fascinatingly complex and the story is a compelling one. The book poses many interesting questions about the value of freedom and the purpose of suffering. However, Murdoch tends toward heavy-handedness when she leaves ordinary conversation for more philosophical discussions, especially when she has her characters discuss and debate the existence of God (as happens frequently). These regular discussions disturb the pace of the book and often seem abrupt and stilted.

I'm glad I stumbled upon this book, and I do think I'll give Dame Iris Murdoch another try sometime, but I can't quite make up my mind what to think of The Unicorn. Were it not for the regular digressions, this would easily be a four- or even five-star book, but as it stands it's hard to say whether I would recommend the book or not. With reservations, though, I'll give it four stars.
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