Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Red and the Green” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Carrying on with the #IMReadalong, we’ve had two of the “minor” novels in a row here, with “The Red and the Green” being I feel one of the less-read novels. It’s Murdoch’s only specifically historical novel, treating the events of Ireland’s Easter Rising and taking a close look at Anglo-Irish and Irish identity. I’m not sure myself that it entirely works as either a historical novel or a novel, but there are of course lots of Murdochian themes and complicated relationships to enjoy, and a less successful Murdoch novel is still a good novel in my eyes.

Iris Murdoch – “The Red and the Green”

(27 February 2018)

I’d forgotten that the sea plays such an important scene-setting role in this book, with beautiful descriptions as usual for IM. Almost immediately we’re looking across Dublin Bay with Andrew Chase-White, in a view that’s “intensely familiar and yet disturbingly alien” (p. 10) – a description it seems of how the Anglo-Irish characters feel when in Ireland (and perhaps in England, too). And we soon meet his cousin, Pat Dumay, the very reason he’s joined a cavalry regiment and grown a moustache. It does feel a bit creaky to have a plot that sets cousin against cousin in the struggle for Home Rule, but then again these things do happen and it enables IM to make some useful points: does the personal outrule the political / military in people’s hearts (yes). While there are plenty of confusing siblings, with pairs marrying each other and a few outliers, Andrew is without siblings and longs for that relationship.

With these confusing siblings, Murdoch actually once again describes the confusion of reading her books:

‘We Anglo-Irish families are so complex,’ Hilda used often to exclaim with a kind of pride, as if complexity in families were a rare privilege. (p. 18)

Checking that quotation, I noted Millie’s assertion that “we’re practically incestuous,” used to greater effect right at the end of the book, of course.

We have plenty of civil servants in the book and also plenty of doubling. Both Barnabas and Christopher have given up civil service jobs to write books. Christopher’s an interesting character, seeming to be quiet and sere and all pulled together but then effectively destroying himself through sudden impulsive actions. Is this the contingent winning over the pattern? Pat and Andrew both fear sex and loathe women, with Andrew being very naive about their motivations. Of course they then, and Christopher, are after the same woman. Andrew and Barney are both virgins and it’s clear they both fail in this respect (I think it’s clear with Andrew).

Pleasingly, we find both people staring into houses through windows – Frances and later Frances and Christopher, and we even find Frances flitting across the lawn in her “whitish” dressing-gown, carrying on the tradition of pale-clad women fleeing through the dew.

It’s quite clear to me that we have two enchanters in Millie and Pat Dumay, and one saint in Kathleen. Kathleen is actually described as the good woman to Millie’s bad woman at one point (p. 108). Kathleen is indifferent to her surroundings and lives in mess and chaos, wearing shabby clothes (in contrast to Millie’s showy dressing-up). It’s explained that her lack of attention to the house is down to her being too busy helping people in distress. Christopher describes her as an independent character and no slave, and respects her for this. Barney goes further, describing her (like Ann in “An Unofficial Rose”) as having “a negative quality in her, an un-life, in the presence of which ordinary healthy persons, such as myself and my step-sons, quite perceptibly shuddered” (p. 213). It’s good to see that she and Frances prevail uninjured to the end of the epilogue, Kathleen still taking in waifs and strays.

As for Millie, Christopher is unable to prevent himself falling in love with her and has been “helpless”. Barney, similarly, “A few kind words, a touch, from Millie re-established and confirmed his servitude” (p. 110). She collects admirers and is “simply incapable of refusing a devotion however absurd” (p. 84), thus being another enchanter whose role is created by their subjects. However, she does also go out of her way to lure Barney when he’s training for the priesthood – “She simply wanted this black-robed priestling as her slave, a pet to fondle and caress” (p. 105). I’m not sure Pat manipulates people in the same way: everyone appears to be in love with him, but he doesn’t do anything to encourage that. Cathal complains of being “enslaved” (p. 125) but continues their bathing ritual past when he could have stopped, and Andrews’ idolising of him means that “the spring of power was broken inside him” (p. 308). So maybe he’s the true enchanter.

As well as goodness we are introduced to ideas of freedom – in Pat’s case “a real loss of tissue in the Self” but associated with pain and masochism and mixed up with his idea of his role as Ireland’s liberator.

Back to that water, we have the sea (notably, Barney visits it with Frances and fails to give his rifle up to it), and also the incessant rain – Millie is practically constantly slightly damp around the skirts (and dampens Pat’s trousers with her “tears or kisses” (p. 180). Water even falls through the conservatory roof onto the tablecloths and there’s always something dripping. When Millie drops her earring inside Andrew’s shirt, it immediately begins to pour with rain. She and Frances also have complex buns, as characters have to have in IM, although I’m not sure anyone’s hair is cut (Millie’s comes down at a pivotal moment). Kathleen and Barney and also Millie have chaotic and busy rooms and there are two mentions of masks (Pat when observed by Cathal). There are complicated arrangements for war but a very Murdochian sudden slew of detail on exactly how to gag someone effectively but safely.

There are discussions of women’s issues which I don’t recall being to the forefront in the other novels (though we do have the efficient secretaries who take things over in “The Flight from the Enchanter”). Millie demonstrates a masculinity which makes her an attractive boy to some characters, but it’s Frances who pushes against the boundaries and raises questions (and who escapes the clutches of Ireland).

Although it’s very much a novel of deep ironies (most strongly the fact that however much one wants to act in a certain way, one’s deep human relationships will always prevail – see Pat and Cathal; Andrew and Pat), there’s not a huge lot of humour. I did like a point about Millie which almost (and I know I don’t usually espouse linking books to their authors’ private lives) seemed to echo Murdoch’s:

A popular woman who enjoys her admirers and is also kind-hearted will naturally want to keep her friendships strictly sealed off from each other. (p. 78)

The inability to do just this gives her the funniest line in the novel, much later:

Well, a woman caught in my situation has got to adopt some tone, and it’s not easy to combine devastating frankness with calm dignity. What tone do you suggest? (p. 251)

The Epilogue is necessary, I think, and of course gives some more doubling and patterning with the coming of the Second World War and Frances’ worry about her son’s friend going to the Spanish Civil War. There’s some slightly heavy-handed discussion of what history will remember, the historical novel side of things intruding once more.

The introduction in my copy mainly covers the psychological aspects of the novel, apparently informed by its 1960s time of writing, which influenced some other works about the Easter Rising. So the historical aspect is prime there, whereas I tend to see the novel as an IM novel with history inserted into it. Not a bad read by any means, not a work of historical document, and I’m glad we move back to the dank mists of religious England for the next work.


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 – Gillian Tindall – “The Tunnel Through Time” #20BooksOfSummer #amreading

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Gillian Tindall The Tunnel Through TimeMatthew and I have been having a week off work this week: we didn’t go anywhere, but had a good rest and got a load of useful stuff done in the bits between resting and (of course) reading: a lightshade in the bathroom! Three computer carcases gone to the recycling centre! Slightly complicated holiday booked for later in the year! I’m caught up with the blogs I read! I took the attached picture to prove I did sit out in the garden reading – we’ve had a bit of rain just now and the boiling hot weather did calm down a bit, which was a relief.

I bought this book in the Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance last October (yes, I’m much less than a year behind right now – hooray!) – it’s a lovely independent bookshop and I always try to buy something there when I’m down.

Gillian Tindall – “The Tunnel Through Time”

(02 October 2017 – Edge of the World Bookshop, Penzance)

I picked this up on the strength of having enjoyed the author’s “Celestine: Voices from a French Village” (read and reviewed 8 years ago when my reviews were much shorter) and liking a train book and a London book, so the combination seemed perfect. Subtitled “A New Route for an Old London Journey”, it promised to be a book about the new Crossrail route (not the same as the London Overground, which I had for some reason not entirely grasped) but in fact dots around particular areas and shorter journeys from history that Crossrail now covers, but leaving out some because there is either not enough history there (the Paddington area and Docklands) or there’s been too MUCH history and writing about it (the Brick Lane area). This makes it feel a bit piecemeal and also confusing, as it folds back on itself a few times, comes back to an area chapters afterwards and/or jumps backwards and forwards in time. Then we come to this bit at the end of Chapter V, about Liverpool Street, which seemed overly mysterious and also not in keeping with the endless change and cycles of London:

A further generation has passed, and now at last Crossrail has arrived and the forgotten dead have, in a fragmented sense, lived again. It has been their last appearance. (p. 93)

There was a lot of interest in the book – it explained well that it’s the digging for the new ticket halls that has exposed the most archaeology, covered the history of the Tube and train lines of London (although obviously lots of other books do that, too) and explained just what’s been going on at the Oxford Street end of Tottenham Court Road – there’s a great map of that area and of Covent Garden in the 1880s which was fascinating. It’s also very good on bringing out the whole history of a place in a paragraph, for example Paul Pindar’s house, which passed from private dwelling to pub, ending up memorialised only in the name of a pedestrian walkway through a car park near the Broadgate development (this is what makes the above quotation seem odd, as she’s all about the endless cycles of development and change).

However, I would say that, map of London in the front and contrasting early and late maps of individual areas notwithstanding, you do kind of need to be able to either hold a map of London and an idea of the layout of the Tube lines and overground in your head or be comfortable constantly referring to them.

There’s a lot about history “porn” and misunderstandings espoused by successive generations of Londoners and writers, whether that’s the casting back to the good old days or misrememberings of houses and history, the influence of World War I on writer’s images of peacetime London or many other views of the city and its history. The author is also scathing about modern planning disasters as well as older destructions. So there’s a lot to say in this book, but it’s said maybe at the expense of clarity.

This was Book #7 in my 20BooksofSummer project.


I’m currently a third of the way through “The Red and the Green”, this month’s Iris Murdoch. It’s an odd one, both better and worse than I remembered. Review should come soon, I hope. Then it’s on to Henry II before I get back to 20Books with “Born to Run”. At least I’m keeping up with my reviews and with reading other people’s blogs. How are your book challenges going?

Book review – Miranda Aldhouse-Green – “Sacred Britannia” @ShinyNewBooks @thamesandhudson

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Sacred BritanniaI did some archaeology when I was younger and always enjoyed working on the everyday rather than the fancy. I’ve maintained an interest in Roman history and archaeology but have lost touch with new discoveries and theories, so it was especially good to read in this book of finds made up to the mid-2010s as well as the more familiar objects and sites – it added to the fascination of this book I read in June, just now featured on Shiny New Books.

What the book basically does is take the gods and religious practices of the Romans and the gods and practices of the Britons and looks at their interaction in the context of the Roman occupation of Britain, starting from Caesar’s expeditions to the country in 55/54 BC and finishing at what is traditionally seen as the end of Roman Britain in the early 5th century AD. The chapters are themed, looking first at the role of the Druids in the whole thing, then the role of the Roman Army, which was the most definitive example of the spreading of Romans through Britain but also probably the most diverse group of “Romans” hailing from all parts of the empire, in both spreading news of their gods and taking up use of the Britons’. Related to this, there’s a whole chapter on Eastern cults which got absorbed into Roman culture then imported into Britain: the cult of Mithras and others. There’s a fascinating chapter on ancient British symbols such as horns and triple figures being absorbed into Roman iconography, and the use and re-use of different symbols and indeed individual statues and images is continued in the chapter on Christianity … [read the rest at Shiny New Books]

Thank you to Thames & Hudson for providing a book in return for an honest review on Shiny New Books.

Book review – Robert MacFarlane – “The Old Ways” plus a DNF #amreading #20BooksOfSummer

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Finally getting on with another #20BooksOfSummer book after a diversion into the Kindle (and although I’ve got another on the go now, then we’re all about Iris Murdoch and Henry II for a bit). I do feel bad that I’ve only got to Book 6 so far but then it’s not a challenge you’re ever made to feel bad about, so I need to stop that!

I also report on a DNF that I really didn’t take to – I was reading it for NetGalley and I’ll paste here the notes I put there. I did skim the whole thing but didn’t take in every word, so I’m not counting it as a book properly read!

Robert MacFarlane – “The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot”

(21 August 2017, Oxfam)

Apparently third in his trilogy, but the one I’d heard of, spotted in Oxfam Books. I was a bit worried about this as a few of my readers had said it had fallen a bit flat for them, however I’m happy to report that I loved it!

There were a few icky bits, with dead birds and a VERY odd sculptor, but nothing I couldn’t cope with. There was also a funny supernaturally bit near the start but by the time I got to another nearer the end, I’d realised there isn’t a lot of Woo to this writer, and when the old ways and their old walkers are concerned, sometimes slightly uncanny things happen.

MacFarlane weaves in the lives and works of other writers, especially Edward Thomas, whose home locations he visits and whose life he tells, but also people like Adam Nicolson (hooray!) whose Shiant Isles he memorably visits. The old ways turn out not to just be holloways and sunken tracks, ridge ways and drovers’ paths, but also sea paths and shifting estuarine mud projects. I loved learning about how paths develop and remain (that requires common care and common practice) and learning about how “desire paths” can supersede and impose themselves on official routes. The book wears its learning lightly, though, and I think you still get a sense of the human behind it – especially when he describes a walk made to his grandfather’s funeral, which I found very moving.

Although he experiences danger, particularly in the muddy Broomway, most of the book is about walks with friends, describing the natural world and particularly birds, and encountering various characters along the way, again, also covering an idea of who has walked in the British countryside and when. I enjoyed the parts in Britain most, but the travels abroad, especially his encounter with vultures in Spain, were interesting, too. He has lots to say about pilgrimage and talks of pilgrims.

I did like a quotation I pulled from his wet walk of the Broomway, when he’s worrying about the tide rushing in:

For some reason, I couldn’t overcome my sense of tides as volatile rather than fixed, capricious rather than regulated. What if the tides disobeyed the moon, on this day of all days? (p.68)

Who hasn’t felt that, when crossing a causeway or descending to a beach?

The index, in categories, is a bit odd, but he thanks the indexer by name, which is lovely. So all in all a great book that I’m glad I read.

This was Book 6 in my 20BooksOfSummer project.

Helen Cullen – “The Lost Letters of William Woolf”

(from NetGalley, May 2018 – skimmed after about 25%)

I was intrigued by the synopsis and, like other reviewers, was interested in the idea of the Department of Lost Letters and all the different parcels that had gone astray and had to be reunited with their owners or addressees. The parts of the book which covered this were great, however I was not expecting the actual main theme of the book, picking over a marriage gone sour, and I found this quite depressing and not something I would look forward to reading about. And then it was very much “tell” and not “show” so not really interesting as such. I ended up skimming it, so I can’t review it on my book blog, but got a good general idea of it. What a shame as it could have been so good. There’s no mention of the marriage in the synopsis so maybe the publisher was aware it wasn’t this aspect that would sell the book. The very ending, the epilogue, was so pat and tidy as to grate, an assumption made that if something is settled upon as an ending, so it will happen. I’m sure lots of people will like this, but not for me, sorry.


How are your reading projects going?

Book review – Amby Burfoot – “Run Forever” #running #amreading #NetGalley

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This book has been out since May, which is around when I requested it – fortunately I was approved in time for it to be the book of the month in the Runners’ Bookshelf Facebook group. Thank you to publisher Center Street for making it available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

This is in fact the running book I would have written, had I as much clout as this veteran runner, ex-editor-in-chief of Runners’ World, Boston Marathon winner who has run at least one marathon in each of seven of his decades on Earth. You have to believe this stuff from him, right?

He’s very much about simplicity – which I love – talking about how complicated running has become, when it’s really a matter of popping some shoes on and going out there. He advocates choosing the shoes that are most comfortable (but buying them from a specialist sports retailer and benefitting from their knowledge), looking at walk-run programmes, especially when starting out or recovering / ageing, setting different goals as you get older, practising with the drinks that will be available in your marathon and not trying new things during a race, and carb-loading but not troughing. Great stuff!

He does talk a lot about research, including when it is more likely to be generalisable (he likes reports from the Army and from big research institutes with big research populations) and everything he says is backed up, sometimes also from his own experience, but none of it’s earth-shattering, for example he still advocates the 10% rule when increasing your distance (only add 10% to your long run each week, no more) and taking rest weeks. Because he’s been running for so long, he has seen all the fads go past and he does talk interestingly about how opinions on some things like stretching and tapering have changed over the years.

The book is not just a guide to how to keep running forever, but also a guide to starting and maintaining an injury-free running life. He talks about injuries when they do occur very sensibly, mentioning that “you can’t go wrong by leaning in the direction of extra caution” and sharing a story of when he allowed a small niggle to develop into a major problem by not listening to his body. He reads very humble like that.

I loved the things that chimed with my own running (of course!) e.g. that when running long, everyone doesn’t have to run with you all the way, but can join in for their own bits: this is something I’ve always done with long run training but I’m not sure I’ve seen it written about before; and the mental health benefits of running side-by-side and talking about all manner of things. He’s also keen on the idea of a cuppa after a run, having seen Roger Bannister do that – fab! I also loved his descriptions of his training partners and how he loves them for different aspects of their running and training styles – very true.

Burfoot is inspiring without ever being sappy – the best kind of inspiring for me. He talks about how he’s no fan of “corny mantras” like “the hills love you and you love the hills” but advocates sensible, positive self-talk, as he’s been persuaded that has effects, and I felt that

Expect bad days. Remember the good ones.

is a great principle to run by. His advice on keeping on running into old age, which I’m sure is why many of us picked up this book, is to keep doing it, even when difficulties hit, keep doing hill reps for the cardiovascular benefit and adjust your goals. Sensible stuff but nice to have it written down in front of you.

There are some rather odd generalisations about women runners mixed in with the great advice and sensible recommendations. For example, apparently women excel in running because they are more likely than men to follow the Couch 2 5k rules when starting out, rather than “charging into running” and then breaking (I’m not sure I’ve seen a gender difference in this and I’ve helped a lot of runners start running); and women have embraced half-marathons (rather than marathons) because they can then “lead the balanced lives many aspire to” without the gruelling and time-sapping training for a marathon. This kind of implies women have more responsibilities than men and read just a bit odd. He obviously celebrates women runners and their achievements, but these small sections felt a bit weird.

But apart from that minor point, a great guide to starting – and keeping – running.

Wendy from Taking the Long Way Home reviewed this book with an author interview for her May Book Club read. Do pop and have a look!


Have you ever read the book you would have written yourself? Were you relieved someone had done it for you? What are you reading now?

State of the TBR July 2018 #amreading

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It’s State of the TBR time and I think I’ve done rather well!

Sorry it’s a bit fuzzy, but you can hopefully see that the one with the half-pink spine (Thirkell, yay!) is the end of the front row and you can’t help but notice that the Pile has room to return to the TBR shelf (it was like this in June). I finished 12 books in June and half of them were from the actual TBR (the others were Kindle books or review books and my Iris Murdoch.

I’ve not yet posted about “Sacred Britannia” but will let you know when the review comes out on Shiny New Books. I’m currently reading Robert McFarllane’s “The Old Ways” (I was going to post a prettier, artier photo, but I quite like this in-progress one) and really, really enjoying it – I was enthusing about it yesterday and I’m still really liking it, so even though it’s quite substantial, I don’t think it will take that long to read. I am only up to Book 6 (this one) in my 20BooksofSummer project but am hoping I will have more time for the project this month, and also quite a lot of the books coming up are fiction or running books, which are fairly brisk reads. I also have a week off coming up (we’re not going anywhere, maybe some day-trips, but I needed a break from work) so that should help.

Talking of the books that are coming up, here’s the front end of the TBR, and all of these are books for 20BooksofSummer (I’ve added “Everything Was Good-Bye” to replace “The Accidental Apprentice” which was pretty well a Did Not Start. Also coming up this month I have Iris Murdoch’s only historical novel, “The Red and the Green”, set during Ireland’s Easter Rising (and not one of her most major novels, but still of interest: preview post here) for my IMreadalong project, and Claudia Gold’s “King of the North Wind” about Henry II to review for Shiny and Helen Cullen’s “The Lost Letters of William Woolf” to read for NetGalley (I have other NetGalley books but no others published in July). I’ll also be reading Amby Burfoot’s “Run Forever” which is Book of the Month in the Runners’ Bookshelf Facebook group I belong to.

What does your July of reading look like?

“The Italian Girl” round-up and “The Red and the Green” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Welcome back to my Iris Murdoch readalong and we’re fairly galloping through them, aren’t we. Today we review the small and not very much discussed “The Italian Girl” and preview another book considered “minor”, I think it’s fair to say (partly because Murdoch herself apparently changed her mind on it), “The Red and the Green”.

“The Italian Girl”

I reviewed this one nice and early in the month here and we’ve had a bit of discussion in the comments already. Bookish Beck reviewed it on her blog but did comment that she felt she got more out of my assessment than out of the book itself. Annabookbel read her late mum’s first edition and reviewed it here. Jo has written a very thoughtful review highlighting Edward’s use of female stereotypes here.

Bookish Beck also submitted this great cover image from the 60s – one of the pretty horrific series of covers they did for her, which I secretly really like.

Maria Peacock has the 1967 Penguin with a fairly disturbing cover (who is this supposed to be?) and interesting blurb:

8 Maria Peacock Italian Girl 1967 Penguin blurb8 Maria Peacock Italian Girl 1967 Penguin

Peter Rivenberg again steadfastly sent me his cover images, noting the art on them, too. This is the late 70s Penguin with Botticelli’s Primavera (who is that supposed to represent or can we read meaning from the picture):

And also the 2000 Vintage Classic before my edition, featuring The Fall by Hugo van der Goes, so a range of themes overall!

If you have comments to make or links to blog posts or Goodreads reviews to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review.

“The Red and the Green”

Murdoch’s Irish historical novel is set in a very different Ireland to “The Unicorn”. It’s a mix of sexual farce and serious history which received mixed reviews on publication and I’m not sure is read much today (although I’m sure I met someone who said it was their favourite of her novels once).

I have the usual three copies: a first edition bought for this project, a 1990s Penguin (bought on 19 January 1995 when I was 23, presumably with a Christmas or early birthday book token; I had a habit of catching up with Murdoch purchases around January each year) and the new Vintage classic:

The cover image on the Penguin is Lady Lavery as Cathleen in Howihan by Sir John Lavery. I really don’t like the first edition image in the middle – what is that supposed to be? and I really like the gloomy and dread-filled new Vintage cover.

The blurbs: the first had a long description which you might not be able to make out, covering all the characters and themes. Perhaps they thought the book needed explaining:

There’s a lesson in first edition value, here, too, in the flyleaf:

I paid the very much lower of the two prices for it.

My Penguin is quite brief:

and then the new vintage takes its description of Millie (my favourite character, I remember) from the first edition, which is nice:

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Red and the Green” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

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