Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Bruno’s Dream” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

7 Comments

I will admit to finishing reading this book a good few days ago, but I need a chunk of time to write these reviews that I really didn’t get in the week back after our holiday in Cornwall. I was slightly worried about reading this one as it’s traditionally been one of my least favourite, however I recall liking it a lot more last time, and I found even less to feel weird about this time. Maybe it’s a book that gets better with increasing maturity (or age!). Discuss! Let’s NOT discuss any further how Vintage didn’t do a “red spine” edition of this one. It’s fine. Honestly.

EDITED TO ADD: After some comments and some thinking about this on my own part, I’ve realised that I’m using these ‘reviews’ of IM’s books as sort of notes for discussion rather than traditional or formal reviews, using a kind of shorthand regarding themes etc. I’ve realised this might be a bit offputting to the casual or new visitor, or the person visiting IM for the first time, even, so I’ve added this comment here and tweaked the piece slightly to hopefully make it a bit more approachable. I’ve made additions in italics on 23 October in the early morning, so the first two comments on the post were made before that.

Iris Murdoch – “Bruno’s Dream”

(August 2018)

Bruno, very elderly and frail, is dying slowly in his son-in-law Danby’s house. Across London, his estranged son, Miles, lives with his second wife and her sister in some sort of domestic harmony. Meanwhile Danby dallies with the maid, Adelaide, who is mixed up with a pair of twins, weird actor Will and Nigel, Bruno’s nurse. As the Thames threatens to flood, Bruno mulls over his indiscretions, his obsession with spiders, his stamp collection and the metaphor of his dressing gown as he sinks and the waters rise.

When I first read this book, in my mid-teens, it really did feel like it was all about Bruno’s slow death, and I found it morbid and alarming and really wasn’t keen. But there’s so much more to it than that, including a range of interesting other characters and their tangled relationships. What I hadn’t realised, though, or remembered, was just how much Adelaide (like Patty?) is abused and mistreated.

We’re straight into Bruno’s consciousness at the start of the novel, and it’s amazing how she “gets” his life and his slow decline. With the description much later, “He felt as if the centre of his mind was occupied by a huge black box which took up nearly all the space and round which he had to edge his way. Names not only of people but of things eluded him, hovering near him …” (p. 278), it’s almost impossible not to think of IM’s own Alzheimer’s, isn’t it (or is that just me, ignoring my Reception Theory / Death of the Author underpinning?).  But it’s not all about him and soon we meet Danby, and a great pithy summary of his character:

Danby was the sort of man who, if civilisation were visibly collapsing in front of him, would cheer up if someone offered him a gin and French. (p. 11)

There’s not so much farce and humour in this book as there is in some of the others, even if there’s some drawing-room stuff and some partner swapping going on. It’s more irony: Bruno saving the stamp collection for a rainy day has pathos and humour when he considers what he could have done with the money, and then savage irony when it’s an actual rainy day that takes it away. There is the farce of everyone thinking Danby has crept into Miles and Diana’s garden to see them which reminds us of other misunderstandings in other novels. The duel, again, could be farcical but is odd and disturbing and leads Nigel to make a strange claim about who he loves. IM does seem to like amusing when she’s describing a house: she’s done that before and she does it again in Auntie’s house: “Not everything which ought to be against a wall had a wall to be against” (p. 45)

I think something which might be unique in this book is the flash forward to Adelaide and her marriage and children: does this happen in any other of the novels? Also quite unusual is the brief flash of feminism on p. 220:

‘My name is Nigel. I’m the nurse. Nigel the Nurse. I suppose I should say the male nurse, the way people say women writers, though I don’t see why they should, do you, as more women are writers than men are nurses. Wouldn’t you agree?’

Another weird thing I found: Nigel refers to Adelaide as taking the stamp “for Will Boase” – however Will is his twin and Danby knows this (doesn’t he?) so why would he refer to him as Will Boase and not just Will?

With our main themes that we find in most of her novels, and which make IM’s entire oeuvre something many people read over and over again, rather than having a particular favourite, in the descriptions of women, Diana “tucked her hair well back behind her ears and thrust her pale smooth large-eyed face boldly forward at the world” and I think if we came upon that in isolation we’d know it was IM, wouldn’t we? Adelaide fulfils an important theme by having her hair cut off and then carrying the cut-off bit around with her. With siblings, we have Diana and Lisa and their swap in importance and power; Lisa also becomes a sort of child in Diana and Miles’ marriage. Miles and Danby are brothers-in-law and of course we have nasty Will and creepy Nigel, weird twins grown up but torturing each other rather than conspiring. Why was it Bruno and not them I found horrifying on my original reading of the book?

In further doubling, Lisa resembles the dead Gwen, Miles’s first wife, and Nigel goes to do the job Lisa originally signed up for in Calcutta. Bruno has written his Great Book but it wasn’t a huge tome after all and we get a wryly amusing passage about its decline from a planned great work to a couple of articles. Nigel spends quite a lot of time looking through windows from damp gardens, and then Danby has his foolish climb into Miles and Diana’s back garden to look through their window, causing the horrible almost-farce in the garden. Water is of course a main theme, with the threat of the Thames flooding and the flood scene, plus Danby’s escape from the duel by swimming the Thames. Adelaide’s tears make more water appear. And who can forget London and its fogs, redolent of “The Time of the Angels” or “A Severed Head” as almost another character.

IM is often talked about as having a central enchanter and a saint figure in her novels. Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Poor old Adelaide feels herself not to be like other people, lives in clutter and “did not feel herself in any way attached” which is quite a classic indicator of Murdochian sainthood. She’s in the power of Danby and Will but is maybe enchanted rather than saintly? Lisa is spoken of as having a vocation and she is a “bird with a broken wing” but also very strong: she works in an “atmosphere of dirt and poverty and muddle” and “lived in a real world” (p. 148), and of course she cares for Bruno without revulsion and tries to go and do charity work but finds her role is back healing the folk around her. She is also described has having “superb negativity” (p. 254) and being detached.

I’m not sure there IS an enchanter. Nigel claims he’s God but I think he’s just a creepy hippy – and certainly no enchanter claims to be one and usually becomes on by his subjects making him one. Or maybe he’s a saint: he gives Diana advice to “Let them trample over you in their own way” (p. 223), although he doesn’t seem to follow his own advice. But again, he talks in his letter to Danby of being a saint, and the way to be one is not to strive to be one, isn’t it. Diana learns to let people do as they will and to look after Bruno without recoiling, so is maybe moving towards goodness. As Bruno fades, she realises, “She tried to think about herself but there was nothing there” (p. 289) so in helping Bruno she’s subsumed her own person – and become saintly?

Echoes of other books: First of all, the pursuit of a woman is back, when Bruno chases Janie through the department store early on. Miles also sees a woman in a pale dress walking across the paving stones in the dark and doesn’t know whether it’s his wife or sister-in-law.  Gwen and Danby meet on the Circle Line Tube, a line which will of course assume prominence in “A Word Child” (taking a forward echo on for once). The fog and London echo “A Severed Head” and “The Time of the Angels”, and of course Will Boase and/or his sons are mentioned in “The Sea, The Sea” (which I love).

I’ve really been feeling my way as I’ve written my review here rather than formulating thoughts on the book in advance and putting forward full hypotheses. I certainly reacted viscerally to some of the scenes and like it a good deal more than when I first read it, 30-odd years ago. I hope this piece isn’t too muddled and is clearer now!


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

Book review – Jackie Kay – “Red Dust Road” plus holiday book confessions #amreading #bookconfessions

21 Comments

I’m just back from a holiday in West Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly – had a lovely time, with lots of walking, some running, a bit of horse-riding (once every two years is about my record on that one) and, of course, plenty of reading. I read all the books I took with me and left them in our two hotels, but of course acquired more while down there from some favourite shops and the great charity shops of Penzance. And then finished reading one of the acquisitions on the train home!

Jackie Kay – “Red Dust Road”

(12 October 2018 – Penzance charity shop)

My friends in the Very Small Book Group had read and raved about this a while ago (Ali will let me know when, I’m sure) and so when I spotted it in a charity shop I couldn’t resist. Ostensibly the story of her finding her Nigerian father and family, it’s also an autobiography and tribute to her adoptive parents.

It’s a lovely, warm, self-deprecating but strong read, and I did indeed love it. I giggled at times and I did have a tear in my eye at one point. I really loved the stories of her mum’s down-to-earth Scottish reactions to the more outlandish parts of her “journey” as well as the heartfelt descriptions of her meetings with her birth mum and dad and musings on what it is to be adopted and the howling wind-filled centre of your mind that is never truly still. As a poet and novelist, Kay is full of stories, of course, but she shares this with her mum and talks movingly of how the two of them wove together a story of what happened to her birth parents that sustained them and drew them closer: “It was a big bond, the story” (p. 44).

Kay is so honest, especially sharing how she’s an open and trusting person and so all the secrecy around her adoption really got to her. She’s thrilled to meet her Highlands of Scotland aunts and draws interesting comparisons between the Scottish and Nigerian villages she originates from. She’s generous in her thanks to the people who support her along the way, and while it’s not an easy read as such, the pages slip by. I will be looking for some of her poetry to read now.

Here‘s Ali’s review of the book, which brings out some quotations I loved, too.


We had a sort of “extra” day in Penzance on Friday, as our boat from the Isles of Scilly was moved forward because of storms coming in on Friday and Saturday. We didn’t do much (we had a trip out on Sunday, instead, which we thought would be our down day) but I scoured the charity shops and the wonderful Edge of the World Bookshop for lovelies. Eric Newby’s “A Small Place in Italy” is about restoring an Italian house and not one I had or had even read! The Jackie Kay we now know about. “Bird Watching Watching” by Alex Horne (who we know from the rather wonderful programme Taskmaster) is about a year birdwatching with his dad and was not to be resisted.

I bought Philip Marsden’s “Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place” because it centres around West Cornwall, where we were. This seemed the ideal book to buy there. I love this shop so much – website here – it’s so friendly and has a marvellous stock, and has just moved a few doors up the road into larger premises. If you’re ever in West Cornwall, do pop to Penzance to pay them a visit.

There are a couple of other lovely bookshops in Penzance. Barton Books does art and design and children’s books and lovely notebooks, and Newlyn Books has a wonderful selection of second-hand books and art books, including a wonderful local collection.

Amusingly, I bought a copy of Colin Duriez’ “The Oxford Inklings” there – I say amusingly because of course Tolkien was a son of Birmingham, and last time I went to Newlyn Books I bought a Francis Brett Young book (another local). This has very good reviews by a number of scholars and looks like another good addition to my shelf.

The final addition to my TBR came when we got home. A running and reading friend had asked if I could help the publisher out by taking on a review copy of Mark Atkinson’s “Run Like Duck: A Guide for the Unathletic” and as we know, I’m always up for a running book (plus this one mentions ultras) so I was very happy to find it on the doormat when we returned (along with the Iris Murdoch Review, which includes a lovely review of my book “Iris Murdoch and the Common Reader”, and Saga Book from the North Atlantic Research Society, so I’m going to be a busy Lizzie for a while!

What have you been up to while I’ve been away? I’ve tried to keep up with blogs though had to catch up first!

Book review – Tracy Corbett – “The Summer Theatre by the Sea” #amreading

Leave a comment

Another easy win, read on holiday in Cornwall as it was set there (you can see it on the back shelf in the TBR picture). There are a lot of these “Little x by the sea” novels in The Works et al. at the moment; it must be the new trendy theme after book groups. But it was a decent read.

Tracy Corbett – “The Summer Theatre by the Sea”

(07 August 2018)

This light novel starts off with our heroine finding her world falling apart and deciding to move in with her sister down in Cornwall. I think this is a genre thing as I’ve read a few books that start like that, but it was believable and set the scene. After a wobbly moment where Bristol and Plymouth appeared to get mixed up, we were safely near the end of Cornwall in a town which appeared to be a nice mix of Penzance and Newlyn, with a few of the castly places thrown in – well done, though.

Of course there’s romance brewing with another escapee from London this time and there is depth in this book, with Barney’s career worries and local relationships – including an interesting loan shark sub-plot) very nicely portrayed. There’s plenty of agency for our central figure Charlotte and she’s certainly not waiting for someone to rescue her, and it was nice that she worked out her issues with the help of her GP and a sensible self-help book rather than just the love of a good man. The transvestite character was a nice touch and it was great to see the Minack Theatre portrayed, although you’d have to know it to know it’s a real theatre (there’s a picture of it on the front of the book, which is what I was drawn to).

A good read with some nice depth to it.


I found Jackie Kay’s “Red Dust Road” in a charity shop in Penzance (I will update on all my buys another day when I’ve sorted out my photos) and have started reading it: Heaven-Ali and two other local friends read it for their Very Small Book Group a while ago and told me how good it was so it seemed foolish not to pick it up. Good so far!

Book review – Robert Ferguson – “Scandinavians” #amreading

6 Comments

I couldn’t wait to pull this one off the shelf as a bit of a different non-fiction read, passed to me by my friend Sian. She usually likes harder or more experimental books than me but I think we basically agree on this one.

Robert Ferguson – “Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North”

(24 March 2018, via BookCrossing)

This entertaining and long book starts off with an ill-planned trip to Copenhagen as a young man. We hear all about the various trials and tribulations but it doesn’t put him off and he moves to Norway, I think married to a Norwegian.

Ferguson’s plan for the book is:

… what isn’t, strictly speaking, a history so much as a journey, a discursive and digressive stroll through the last thousand years of Scandinavian culture in search of the soul of the north.

And from ill-fated explorers to a group of intellectuals who might have invented nordic gloom to a multiple killer, we meet the people who made Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with small excursions into Iceland, and also the people Ferguson has met (Sian is correct: he does have a remarkable facility for remembering conversations). He’s interested on the shifting fortunes of the three countries and the relationships between them, too.

It’s generally entertaining and informative: I liked the memoir parts more than some of the history and will admit to having skipped the play that pops up part way through and some of the detailed film discussions. But the parts on the wars, women’s roles in society, etc. were very interesting. I also realised that I’d never known what the 30 Years’ War was all about and now I (probably temporarily) understand that a bit better, so there we go!


I’m reading a very light novel set in an outdoor theatre not unlike the Minack in Cornwall, another easy win plucked from the shelves. Should have it finished tomorrow, although tomorrow is running post day, of course! And I’ve finished my Iris Murdoch for the month, so look out for that review soon …

Book review – Corinne Hofmann – “Reunion in Barsaloi” #amreading

8 Comments

I’m going to admit to having picked a couple of “easy wins” off the bookshelf to try to get the TBR down a bit. I’m also aware I haven’t done the competition winners for the Lethe Press books yet – please bear with, as they say. Things have been a bit hectic recently. At least I’m actually updating this blog: my work one has fallen behind, but as that’s due to having a full work roster, I’m kind of OK with that …

Corinne Hofmann – “Reunion in Barsaloi”

(21 January 2018, from Gill)

Gill had kindly gone through the more elderly parts of my book wish list and picked this one off and I’m so glad I found out what happened next.

18 years before the events in this book, German Corinne was on a ferry in Kenya when she turned and looked into the eyes of a Masai warrior. Her two previous books detailed her affair with, marriage to and flight from this enigmatic man, and dealt in depth with her life in his very rural village an interactions with her mother. This book explores what happens when she goes back, their daughter 14 (and not with her, to save her from possible early marriage and worse) to make contact with her old family again.

Essentially, it’s the story of two weeks in a whole book, so there’s some recapitulation and a lot of detailed emotions and visits. But it’s fascinating to see the two meet again and see their relationship now. I love a book about life in a new country, and those detailing inter-cultural relationships are so interesting. In Corinne’s case, she was – and still is – interwoven with the whole village community.

In addition to this personal homecoming, she visits the film set where the film of her first book is being made, and meets the people playing her and her husband. She seems deeply emotional about this, but almost ashamed of being so.

A fascinating book with sometimes infuriating main protagonists which I was nevertheless very interested and glad to read.


I’m currently finishing Robert Ferguson’s “Scandinavians” which was great until it went into a weird play which I have to admit I skipped. More on that later in the week.

Book review – Dean Karnazes – “Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss” #amreading

9 Comments

Dean Karnazes and I are the most opposite kinds of runners you could hope to meet. Man/woman, competitor/participant, front of the pack/back of the pack, pushes to the limits/doesn’t like pushing themselves, likes pain/dislikes pain, runs terrifying ultras in Death Valley and Antarctica/prefers a road race and is pushing the envelope to run on the Ridgeway for a day. But a lot of runners like running books and, like the fact that I will never climb a mountain or sail across the ocean single-handed, I like reading about what other runners do. I’m not sure I’m the ideal audience for this book (as we shall see) but there we go!

Dean Karnazes – “Run!”

(04 November 2017 BookCrossing via Cari)

Cari and I have a decade-and-a-half long transatlantic book swapping habit that has now become a running book swapping habit. Parcels make their way across the sea, and sometimes we enjoy the difference of the alternative editions (in this, the US edition of the book, Karnazes is shirtless on the front cover; in the UK edition, he’s firmly t-shirted).

To that audience, first. Dean seems to think his readers can be defined thus:

My suspicion is that, like me, most of you reading these pages are drawn to extremes. Moderation bores you. You seek challenges and adventures that dwell on the outer edges. The path of least resistance is not a route often traveled. (p. 161)

My edges are obviously not that far out there: as mentioned above, I’m a determined non-risk-taker, careful and conservative in my running. Oh …

He also describes a running buddy’s journey into ultras as:

His running had become obsessive, fanatical and reckless. In other words … perfect. (p. 80)

Oh, again. But only perfect in one way, right. And we are talking those kind of races in this book that push you right to the limits – ultramarathons in Death Valley and the like. My limits happen to be 26 (maybe 31) miles on a nice firm surface with water stations and perhaps cakes liberally sprinkled along the way. We’re all different, and Karnazes does inspire people: such runners are contrasted in other books, but there is much mention of runners helping each other out in the field, and that’s the running I really do recognise.

He also talks about how people find their real selves in a marathon or ultra, and I can relate to that: even if finding your true self means finding you don’t like to push yourself too hard and are very conservative with your energy! I really did find out about myself in my last marathon that I value self-preservation over competition, even to the extent of risking missing a cut-off in order not to be flat on my back on the floor at the end. I mean, I also found grit and determination and all that, but that was the biggest learning point.

Anyway, the book, in 26.2 chapters, is broken up into some loosely linked and some separate stories about his adventures in ultrarunning (though his most emotional is a 10k with his daughter, which is a very sweet read). It’s good to read in little chunks because of the format, and he does cover all areas of his life so you get an idea of the person as well as the runner.

He covers all sorts of races including ones he suffers in (I liked the one where he’s found wandering clutching a bouquet of wild flowers he’s apparently picked). I really enjoyed his story of carrying the torch in the Beijing Olympic relay in San Francisco.

I enjoyed the chapters interviewing his wife and kids and the one written by Topher, his ex-support crew and runner in own right. He enjoys Topher blowing up in his first race (“A sympathetic man would have offered his condolences. However, I am not a sympathetic man” (p. 74). In fact, Topher gets his own back at the end of the book doing some kind of event around Mount Blanc and knowing what to do with his running poles:

He was a running machine. I, on the other hand, was a stumbling buffoon. (p. 251)

reminding us that Karnazes is never afraid to show his own weaknesses: it’s quite sweet that he’s so proud of his protegé, who is now the one waiting for him on the finish line.

An interesting book for those who like reading about extreme running, even if you’re not an extreme runner (and that’s of course fine).

Book Review – Charles Thomas – “Exploration of a Drowned Landscape” plus #bookconfessions plus @ShinyNewBooks news

12 Comments

A bit of a complicated post today as I’ve been beavering away at the editing and transcription face all week and haven’t had time to update my reviews. So we have a review (and what lovely stamps the book I’m reviewing came with on its parcel, seen in the picture to the side!), some book confessions I promised last Sunday, and this nice Shiny news: my less-personal-more-professional review of “Viking Britain: A History” by Thomas Williams was published this week. Read the full review here with a different slant to the one on this blog.

Charles Thomas – “Exploration of a Drowned Landscape”

(23 August 2018)

I’d asked my Cornish friends what the best book on the history and archaeology of the Isles of Scilly was, as we’re going there later in the year. The reply from my friend Liz was this one, and I managed to pick up a reasonable copy on ABE Books (the ones on Amazon Marketplace were very dear, I didn’t want anyone thinking I’d got into trouble with book prices!).  Pleasingly, it has both a pasted in author signature and the name and address of a previous owner: more on that a little later.

It’s not the kind of book the casual reader might pick up, as it’s a serious tome on all sorts of aspects of the Isles of Scilly. It starts with a very scientific exploration of the probable cause of the “drowned” field and house wall features that become displayed when the tide is very low, below the normal sea level, and then goes on to explore why there are so many cairns and cists and how the settlement of the islands might have gone. I found this fascinating.

We get on to recorded history soon enough, and lots of meaty detail from rolls and records. Actually, here, having read the Vikings book helped, as I was more aware of the early rulers of the region. We then look at some details of different islands, for example the abandonment of Samson and the religious buildings. I loved hearing a few details about the pioneering Augustus Smith, who did the gardens at Tresco and apparently had some ostriches there at some point! There is a final chapter that I will admit didn’t interest me quite so much on Tennyson’s use of the Scillies and West Penwith for his Arthurian poems.

There are flashes of humour and polemic in the book – at one point, the author would have completed a wade on almost dry land because his trousers, wife and money had been left behind on Tresco, and he does rail against unstructured and unrecorded picking over of sites, justifiably.

The illustrations are great: proper hand-drawn maps and diagrams of pots and finds, and some great old photographs from a variety of sources. The comparisons of maps through time are particularly enjoyable.

And then at the end of the book, when it opens flat more easily, we find pencil annotations and some highlighter pen when he talks about the Woodcock family from St Martin – and the name with that address in the front of the book? A Mr Woodcock!

A good read and taught me a lot about the landscape and history that I hope I will put to good use. I’d like to know how things have developed since it was written in the 1980s.


Some confessions now …

So, thanks to my (lovely) friend Bernice, I appear to have signed up for an ultramarathon, to be run in July next year (it’s a safe and reasonably flat one, the Race to the Stones, the second day only, no camping and the shortest extra distance there really is, so 31 miles). What did I do upon signing up? Buy a book (of course). This is by Krissy Moehl, who is a renowned runner and rated by people like Scott Jurek. I like the fact that she has plain and simple rather than gung-ho advice, and a special chapter for women, too. It looks like it will be a good companion on the journey to those stones (not literally: I don’t think you’re expected to pack a book).

Nancy Marie Brown’s “The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman” was sitting in my shopping basket and it seemed a good overlap between going far and being interested in Viking stuff: I’ve read two of her other books and she’s a good and competent scholar.

Then the book my friend Katherine Findlay edited, “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward” was published: it’s the 1906 diary of a Devon man who became an Icelandic knight …

And finally, lovely Bookish Beck had decided not to keep her “lurid series” [my phrase] edition of Iris Murdoch’s “The Italian Girl” (read her review here) and decided to send it to me. How lovely! Thank you!!

Lucky me, right?!

Older Entries