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Henry and Cato by Iris Murdoch
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3.5 stars

Henry and Cato, the two title characters of Iris Murdoch’s eighteenth novel are young men in their early thirties who were friends as children yet have grown apart as the years have gone by. Ostensibly it appears there is nothing they have in common apart from mutual acquaintances, Henry is a low level college professor in America, Cato a Catholic priest, yet at the time of the novel they are both at pivotal moments in their life, looking for change and something outside themselves to propel this.

At the beginning of the novel, Henry is looking to make his mark on the world and speaks of becoming something, ‘permanent, significant and monumental’, his inheritance of the family property allows him to follow this dream regardless of how it affects those around him and he really is a selfish, arrogant, sod. He adores art and almost seems to have the same spiritual experience from looking at certain paintings like Diana and Actaeon, as Cato does from his religion. Ironically Cato is struggling with his own faith and is reminiscent of Michael Mead in The Bell particularly because of his feelings about a particular man in his life. For Cato it is the reprobate, Beautiful Joe, who is a catalyst for much that takes place in the novel including much of Cato’s soul searching which, as in The Bell, became too lengthy for me and slowed down my reading for Cato’s chapters.

Other characters that feature include Lucius, Gerda’s long term ‘guest’ who was probably the most sympathetic character for me, an aging poet who has been ‘kept’ for so long that he no longer has the skills to survive in the real world. We also have Cato’s father John Forbes a strident man who believes that education is the only worthwhile path to follow, Colette, his daughter who is one of those willowy young women that populate Murdoch’s novels, leading with her heart and pining for love and finally Stephanie who, despite her opaqueness and apparent fragility, is surprisingly intriguing and for me it is the women who are the most enjoyable element of this novel.

Often where women are concerned, however, there is a great deal of misogyny. Henry and John Forbes are both misogynistic, believing that they are sympathetic to women while at the same time convinced that they know what’s best for the women in their lives and that they are weak and stupid. An example from John;

‘He had always fought for women’s liberation, he had fought, to his best knowledge, for Colette’s liberation! But there was a kind of invincible stupidity in the other sex which simply asked for bullying. After all it had taken them practically the whole of recorded history to invent a simple idea like the brasserie.’

Ironically by the end of the novel, it is the women who have got what they wanted and while going through events far tougher than Henry and John have experienced, have managed to come out the other side, happy and content in the case of Gerda and Colette and stronger and better equipped in the case of Stephanie.

There are moments of suspense as with the scheme to obtain some of Henry’s money and there are moments of mild humor, usually involving Lucius, there are also some beautiful descriptions of the Hall and its grounds, yet I never felt captivated by this book. I don’t think it helped that this is one of those Iris Murdoch novels where the discussion of religion plays a large part, something that I struggle with and while her novels are often filled with dislikable characters, Henry is almost too much. So, not the most successful reading experience but still much to admire and enjoy as always when reading a novel by Murdoch.
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Reading Progress

April 11, 2019 – Started Reading
April 16, 2019 – Finished Reading
April 27, 2019 – Shelved

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