Carol's Reviews > A Severed Head

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
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's review
Mar 25, 10

bookshelves: british, fiction
Read from March 22 to 24, 2010

This book is a bedroom farce, in which the characters look ridiculous one minute and pitiful the next. The narrator is Martin, a 40-something London wine merchant, who begins the novel by very smugly talking about how he loves both his mistress and his wife. Martin's about to get a come-uppance, however, because his wife Antonia soon tells him she wants a divorce. Not only has the cheater been cheated upon, but Antonia's been seeing Martin's close friend Palmer -- a double betrayal. The plot continues to twist as the novel goes on, but it wouldn't be fair to the reader to give all the surprises away.

A Severed Head had me laughing at the absurdity of all the bed-hopping: written in the early 1960s, it definitely bridges the gap between the sexual repression of the 50s and the free-love attitude of the 70s, as the characters seem to want to explore their sexuality -- but only with the same six people in their social set. Such varied topics as nascent homosexuality (does Martin have any sort of erotic attraction to Palmer?), abortion (Martin's mistress has unresolved grief from an abortion she had previously), and incest are touched upon.

But the farcical nature of book was overshadowed, for me, by the "frightfulness" and "ruthlessness" (to quote the book's subtitle) of the characters. Just when they seem to be experiencing some normal human emotion, their emotions do a 360-degree turn and they seem reprehensible again. There's no end of power games, manipulation and self-delusion, along with the deceit and betrayal.

I think what made me the most dissatisfied about the book was the fact that there just wasn't anyone I was rooting for. Each character seems at time to be a victim, then a perpetrator; each character alternates between acting like an ass and looking worthy of sympathy. The characters use and discard each other, but seem unable to turn away from each other. Even Martin's obsessive attraction to Honor Klein (his wife's boyfriend's half-sister -- got that?) is by turns coltish and icky.

I think if I had felt more of a connection to the author's writing style, I could have dealt with the absurdity of the plot and characters, and if I liked the characters more, I could have dealt with not grooving on the writing style, but the combination of not being attracted by either was what left me without more affection for the book. I don't mean to suggest that I think Murdoch is a bad writer -- just that I didn't love her writing style as a matter of personal taste. This was the first book by Murdoch that I've read, and I'm not sure I'll have the desire to read any more.
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