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A Word Child
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B+ : very nicely turned very dark comedy
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
A Word Child is narrated by Hilary Burde, a forty-one-year-old low-level Whitehall civil servant living in London. He had a difficult childhood: he did not know his father, and his mother died when he was seven; he and his younger sister, Crystal, were then "taken over" by a relative, Aunt Bill, living in a caravan -- with Hilary soon shunted off to an orphanage. He was miserable, and:
I was brimming with anger and hatred. I hated, not society, puny sociologists' abstraction, I hated the universe. I wanted to cause it pain in return for the pain it caused me.He acted out -- "I liked hitting people. I liked breaking things". Salvation, of sorts, came in the form of his intellectual abilities, in particular a facility for language and a love of words -- it turned out: "I was just a brilliant plodder, with an aptitude for grammar and an adoration for words"-- recognized by a schoolmaster who encouraged him. Hilary rose high -- a place at Oxford, a 'first', then election to a fellowship there, his path to a comfortable scholarly career there for the taking -- but it all came crashing down.
Clearly, something terrible happened at Oxford, a catastrophe Hilary alludes to early on already but the details of which he takes his good time revealing. Instead, he begins by chronicling his (rather miserable) present-day life and situation -- literally day by day, the chapters not numbered but proceeding weekday by weekday. (He skips over the first Sundays -- but also gives an early parenthetical heads-up: "it looks as if nothing ever happens on Sundays, but just wait a while".) Hilary tries to lives a strictly regimented life, his routine of who he sees and what he does one he follows closely -- dinner at the Impiatts (his senior colleague, Freddy, and wife Laura) every Thursday, etc.
As he puts it:
My 'days' were a routine, and in the office I conceived of myself as far as possible as a man on an assembly line. Week-ends and holidays were hells of freedom.Clearly, he is not a happy man ("I think you're the unhappiest person I've ever met", one person lets him know) -- and as the novel opens and he finds quite a bit to juggle, even the hold of his routine is feeling distinctly wobbly; he struggles to maintain control.
It begins with his lodger, Christopher, reporting that: "an absolutely stunning coloured girl" had been looking for Hilary. The young woman is called Biscuit, and she does keep popping up -- though it's several encounters before Hilary learns what she's up to. Meanwhile, he's concerned about his beloved sister, the only person he deeply cares about and to whom he is devoted and dedicated, who, approaching forty, now longs to have a child. Crystal has a suitor, Hilary's co-worker Arthur, but Hilary is unsure about the match -- and worries about losing Crystal.
Hilary also has a lover, Tommy -- Thomasina Uhlmeister, who loves him madly and hopes to marry him, certain she can rescue him from his demons (which he has not revealed to her). As she prods him: "Why not opt for happiness ? I could make you happy". It's not so much that he doesn't believe her as that he's not sure that happiness is the road he wants to go down. Indeed, he seems unsure about going down any road, seeming to prefer to uncomfortably tread water in his dreary circumstances, as he has for twenty years. As someone notes about his low-level, dead-end job:
'Oh Lord ! Hilary, I wish you could get yourself a decent job, you're obviously not getting anywhere in the office.'Yes, Hilary beats himself up quite badly -- which many of those around him are surprisingly understanding of, despite the fact that he doesn't exactly brighten their lives with his manner either.
Hilary recognizes what a miserable sod he is, having allowed the wounds from two decades earlier to fester and define him: "What a stupid coagulated mass of indistinguishable guilt and misery I had become". But, when he is pushed to act, he continues to makes a mess of things, not least in his relationship with Tommy.
Arguably, his failure to deal with the events from the long-past have been his ruin, holding him back, keeping him in this miserable state. But is confronting them head-on a way forward ? Yes, it's not just for Hilary that the shadow of what happened twenty years early has been: "like living with a disease" -- but is talking it out the cure ? And is it even possible ?
Hilary certainly has some doubts about confronting the past: when Crystal later reveals yet more about what happened back then, something he had not previously known, he wishes she hadn't: "You've changed the past", he observes -- and as awful as the past was, at least he was accustomed to it and its weight; this just compounds it.
When Hilary and the other party involved way back when do finally talk, he's told:
The effect of saying certain things, of simply thinking certain things, thinking them perhaps for the first time, in your presence. It's a remarkable -- catalyst.But a series of things have already been set in motion and the resulting reactions, with so many people involved, aren't easy to control: catalysts can lead to unexpected and explosive fallouts.
Things come to the fore, and to a head, with the arrival of Gunnar Jopling, who is to become the new head of the office where Hilary is an underling. Gunnar was also at Oxford all those years ago. A few years older than Hilary, he had helped him get his fellowship and Hilary was friendly with both him and his wife, Anne. Tragedy ensued, with both Gunnar and Hilary then abandoning Oxford. Gunnar had enjoyed considerable professional success since then, and had remarried -- a Lady Kitty -- but it's soon clear that he is no less haunted to this day by what happened than Hilary is.
Lady Kitty wants Hilary and her husband to confront their shared past -- something they have avoided all these years -- and she tries to manipulate them into doing that (with the aid of her devoted servant, Biscuit ...). This is not necessarily a good idea. It is, indeed, not surprising that things do not go particularly well, but one has to hand it to Murdoch in how spectacularly badly they ultimately go. One problem that crops up soon is that history begins to repeat itself, as Hilary -- who turns out to be quite a passionate soul -- awkwardly falls fervidly in love with yet another of Gunnar's wives. Like Anne before her, Kitty has some reservations -- and loves her husband --, but still turns to Hilary -- imagining even that the three of them can become friends. And she also expects -- or hopes for -- something more from Hilary, a jaw-dropping ask ..... Yes, tragedy ensues (with both Gunnar and Hilary again leaving the institution they work for and going their very separate ways).
Over the course of the novel, Hilary finds that he has both been left in the dark about some things, as well as misled. He turns out not to be as observant as he might believe -- and his impetuousness certainly does him no favors. Occasionally he realizes that he can't quite grasp some things around him -- "The business was full of mysteries", he admits -- but he barrels ahead regardless.
For a gifted word-child, Hilary fails at some of the basics of communication and understanding. As one acquaintance observes: "You use words as a hiding place. You're always hiding . But what from ?" (It takes a while before we begin to understand what it might be .....)
Hilary admits that:
Someone once said of me, and it was not entirely unjust, that I read poetry for the grammar. As I have said, I never wanted to be a writer. I loved words, but I was not a word-user, rather a word-watcher, in the way that some people are bird-watchers.As an exasperated friend finally confronts him:
Can't you understand human conversation ? Can't you read it, can't you read me ? I should have thought it would be easy enough.Hilary isn't the only with some difficulties in coming to grips with things, long- and short-term: as Kitty notes about his counterpart, her husband:
But he is in a frenzy, he is totally confused and obsessed, he doesn't know what he wants, or what he will do.Hilary acts, and reacts, similarly -- throughout. Much that he does is spur of the moment -- he is constantly walking out on people, even in his own flat -- and much is aimless, as he describes hours spent riding the tube and wandering about London. He practically only deals with what is right in front of him -- and hence he misses quite a lot.
Murdoch has quite a few surprises in store for the reader (and Hilary). The novel can be a bit of a slog for the first half, especially because Hilary is such an unpleasant character, in word and deed, but it eventually comes together nicely, the tragi-comedy snowballing (and coming, at moments, close to farce). Along with Hilary being blind to some of what is happening around him, there are misunderstandings, such as everyone being convinced he's having an affair with Laura Impiatt. Information is also withheld -- way too long, usually, as even the tellers recognize, one of them at one point prefacing an admission with: "I think I must tell you. I think there is a point. It's becoming too awful not to". But Hilary also has a point when, in response to someone who says: "I just want to state a few facts", observes that doing that is: "Often a mistake".
A Word Child is often a near-cringe-worthy bleak comedy. The oddness of the storyline, and of Hilary's behavior, is, strangely, made more plausible and real by some of Murdoch's more bizarre stray bits -- such as Hilary and Biscuit indulging in a game of leap-frog. (The bizarre figure of Biscuit is also the book's most inspired invention, a background figure that nevertheless crops up all the time and plays a significant supporting role.) Only a few scenes seem too forced -- a drugged cake serves its purpose, but is something of an awkward fit -- even as so many of the characters act in ways that should be hard to believe. And yet there's something endearing about the way they get on (and don't ...).
It's hard to sympathize with Hilary, and one does have to wonder why so many people put up with him. His love for Crystal is perhaps in some ways admirable, but his devotion is suffocating and controlling -- for all her cynicism, even Murdoch ultimately offers her release. Elsewhere, she is colder, as in the single line devoted to the fate of Gunnar and Anne's son, Tristram -- or in Hilary's reply to the nevertheless always understanding Tommy:
'What do you want for Christmas ?'(The chapters of the novel are, like in a diary, titled by the names of the weekdays as events progress day by day -- until the final two, 'Christmas Eve' and 'Christmas Day' .....)
For quite a stretch, A Word Child threatens to bog down in Hilary's unpleasantness -- but once things get going, they really get going, and with a few well-placed surprises Murdoch pulls off a hell of a story. For all its early bleakness, A Word Child turns out also to be very funny -- a pitch-black kind of funny, but nevertheless. It's a strange piece of work that shouldn't really work -- these people are simply ridiculous -- and yet it does -- ultimately even very well.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 May 2022
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Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.
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