Wednesday 27 September 2023

The Unicorn

Finished September 23
The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

This strange and eerie novel is set in a remote part of a country that may be Ireland, although it isn't clearly stated. Marion Taylor has answered an advertisement for a governess following an amicable but painful breakup. She is nearing 30 and unsure of whether her future holds a marriage or not. Part of why she found the advertisement appealing is the name of the home she is going to: Gaze Castle. But as the book opens, she finds that it is quite far from the nearest railway station and remote even from neighbours. She has uneasy feelings almost right away, fighting the urge to flee as she is driven to the home. 
The home is a rather ordinary, yet large house, not a castle, and she also soon finds that she hasn't been engaged to teach children, but rather to teach and be a companion for a woman similar in age to herself. There are other mysterious elements to the place, and she finds the roles of many of the other people there unclear. The woman she will work for is Hannah Crean-Smith, a woman who seems delicate in health, and never leaves the premises. The man who collected her, Gerald Scottow seems to be in charge, and may even be under orders to limit the activities and visitors to Mrs. Crean-Smith. 
She also finds that the husband of her employer is alive, but was injured badly in an incident that seems unclear on the cliffs near the house. One possibility is that his wife may have tried to kill him after being found in an act of infidelity. The chauffeur is Jamesie Evercreech, but he is also some sort of distant relative of Hannah's as is his sister Violet. Violet Evercreech seems to act as a housekeeper, with numerous "black maids with casts in their eyes and incomprehensible accents" that she seems to direct. There is also Denis Nolan, a man who seems to deal with animals as well as other unexpected tasks. 
The nearest neighbour is a recluse, an older man named Max Lejour and in the summer his daughter Alice and son Pip come to visit, as does a family friend Effingham Cooper. 
As Marion becomes more and more confused and unsettled by the atmosphere of the place, she thinks that she must make some sort of plan to free Hannah from this imprisonment. 
This is a story that relies on the geography and remoteness of the location, the odd characters, and the sense of foreboding that comes on Marion after encounters with certain people or elements. 
A book that draws you in, so that you need to know how things unfold. Murdoch is a master storyteller. 

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