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Friday, February 10, 2006

The Unicorn — Book Review

Looking for something new to read that fit the budget — free — I rummaged through the box of novels I was forced to buy for college that professors (or I)never got to. Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn didn’t seem like something I’d normally choose to read, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Murdoch brings her readers to a fantasy world that is nonetheless grounded in the familiar in The Unicorn. I’ve seen it characterized as sophisticated gothic and a modernized fairy tale, but it seems more like an anti-fairy tale that examines the way people can literally be trapped by their own thoughts. Though a little difficult to get into, the uniqueness of the story makes it worth the effort.

Hannah lives in a castle surrounded by well-meaning folks, living what most would consider a rather strange life. Her husband insists that she live there against her will for an incident in which she is accused of trying to kill him. Her innocence is presumed by those her husband has apparently arranged to live with her, and he hasn’t lived there in years, yet she remains. The ongoing question surrounds the issue of why she doesn’t simply leave.

The symbolism of the title is the basis of my anti-fairy tale categorization. Hannah, clearly “the unicorn,” is less than pure even from the unquestioned facts. She has a lover out of wedlock, and there’s the suggestion of at least one other. Eventually, without giving too much away, her innocence from her husband’s allegations becomes murky at best. In other words, she’s not exactly upholding the purity of the mythological unicorn.

Murdoch does a great job of creating the fictional setting. It’s truly a world all its own, yet doesn’t merely leave reality in the dust. The landscape blends with the awkward, strange people living in the fairly isolated place that is described in less than inviting terms.

The book opens through the eyes of Marian — the latest servant, in this case a tutor, hired to essentially be company for Hannah. As the strangeness of the Gaze castle unfolds for her, she is sufficiently, though just barely, shocked. Set up as the every day person entering this strange world, her reactions seemed just a touch too tame for me.

A switch in point of view from Marian to Effingham, Hannah’s lover, adds to the author’s ability to keep the reader unsettled. Normally that’s not exactly a compliment, but I think it was intentional here. The author subtly never allows the reader to do exactly what the characters have done — settle into an incredibly odd circumstance.

The exploration of the idea that Hannah and, in some ways, the others were trapped by nothing more than their own thoughts never truly got off the ground. However, there are a few plot twists that will keep you guessing and interested enough to keep reading.

It’s tough to place this one on The Casual Critic scale. I would say it’s somewhere between worth reading and just entertaining.

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